THE CHAT

                For the fifteenth time in as many minutes, Joyce Summers drew back the edge of the curtain and looked out the window.  Still no Buffy. 

It was nearly one-thirty in the morning, and lately Buffy had been coming back from patrolling at about one.  Joyce could only think of one reason why she might be late--that some vampire had finally outmatched her, and she was dead and/or bleeding in the graveyard.

"Maybe she just lost track of time," she muttered to herself.  It was possible, of course.  Buffy rarely if ever wore a watch, and Joyce could see how she could be delayed by a couple of unexpected encounters on the way home, and realistically, she'd been coming home closer to one-fifteen than one o'clock--

This sucked.  This was totally wrong and not what a mother should have to deal with.  She hadn't signed up for the Slayer thing and she just wasn't up to the stress.

She paced the living room three more times, then went again to the curtain.  This time she let out a long breath of relief.  Buffy was coming up the sidewalk toward the house.  Then Joyce tensed again.  Buffy wasn't alone.

The figure with her, tall and dark and silhouetted in the moonlight, looked uncomfortably familiar.  He was walking very close to Buffy, and as they came closer, Joyce could see that he was holding her hand.  She crossed her arms over her chest.  She didn't like this at all.

They stopped on the porch, and she watched them, not feeling a bit guilty about it.  This was her daughter, after all, and if she couldn't protect her from preternatural danger, then she could at the very least protect her from unsavory, emotionally unstable male danger.

She fully expected to see a goodnight kiss exchanged, but there was no lip contact.  The eye contact was incriminating enough, though--deep and intimate.  He touched her cheek lightly with his fingertips, then turned and headed back toward the street, taking his broad shoulders and his long, swirly coat with him. 

            Joyce retreated to the kitchen, walking back out into the living room just as Buffy came in the door.  "Hi, honey," she said.

            "Hi, Mom.  Sorry I'm late."

            "It's okay.  As long as you're not hurt."

            "No.  I'm fine."

            "Everything go okay?"

            "Just fine."  There was still a little sparkle in her eyes, Joyce noticed.  Whatever was going on with Angel, it was quite likely nothing Joyce would approve of.  "I'm going on to bed."

            "Okay, hon.  I'm right behind you."

            Maybe she should have confronted Buffy right there, but somehow it hadn't seemed like the right thing to do.  Boyfriend things could be so touchy.  Watching Buffy skip up the stairs to her room, Joyce decided to do a little research first.

#

            "Thank you very much for taking the time to see me."

            "Of course."  Mr. Giles walked across the library to his private office, Joyce trailing behind.  "It's no problem at all."  He sat behind his desk and she took a seat across from it.  "Is there a problem with Buffy?"

            "Not really a problem.  I just have some questions, and I thought you would be the best person to ask."  Maybe not the most comfortable for her, but she had to put aside her personal considerations for now.  Besides, looking at his currently tweedy self, it was hard to conjure the man who'd had his way with her on top of a police car not all that long ago.  Not that it hadn't been fun.  That was the problem.

            "Are you certain it might not be better to ask Buffy?"

            "I don't know.  Maybe.  But I thought it might be best to get some information before I jump to any conclusions."

            "I see.  So what is it, specifically, that you're concerned about?"

            "Angel."

            "Ah."  Giles took off his glasses and laid them down on the table.

            "He walked her home last night."

            "Yes.  I believe he's been accompanying her on patrol."

            Joyce sighed.  Maybe it would have been best to talk to Buffy.  The way things had been going lately, Buffy might even have told her the truth.  But her new, more open relationship with Buffy still seemed fragile to Joyce, and she didn't want to do anything rash that might send them back to square one.  "Do you think this is a good thing?"

            Giles considered.  Joyce could see the conflict in his eyes.  "I think overall it's probably a good thing.  What she does is very dangerous, and assistance mitigates that somewhat.  He's . . . a very strong and capable fighter."

            "He's a vampire, isn't he?"

            Giles looked startled.  "Yes.  Yes, he is.  I suppose I assumed you knew."

            Joyce shook her head.  "Buffy has told me next to nothing about him.  I guess she thinks it's a touchy subject after what happened last spring.  He was . . ."  She shook her head.

            "He was different."

            "Yes.  He was large and scary and psychotic."

            Giles winced a little.  "Quite."

            The wincing didn't make Joyce feel any better.  But whatever story lay there, she decided she really didn't want to know.  Not at the moment, anyway.  "He's over that now?"

            "By all indications, yes.  And, as I understand it, going to great pains to be sure it doesn't happen again."

            Joyce pressed her lips together, gathering courage for the next question.  "Do you think . . . do you think she's still sleeping with him?"

            "No.  In fact I can guarantee she's not."

            She leaned back in the chair, feeling like a weight had come off her chest.  "That's a relief."

            Giles put his glasses back on.  "Believe me, it's a relief to all of us."  Then he looked at her, as if he hadn't intended to say what he'd said.

            Her eyes widened.  "She told me he changed after . . .   Oh, my God.  Rupert, is that what made him crazy?"

            "Well, yes, to put it bluntly."  He rubbed the bridge of his nose.  "I'm really not very comfortable discussing this, to be honest."

            "Frankly, I'd rather hear it from you.  I find it very disconcerting to listen to my teenage daughter talking about having sex with a twenty-some year old vampire."

            "Actually he's--"  Giles broke off.  "You may not want to know that."

            "Please don't tell me he's older than that."

            To Joyce's surprise, Giles smiled a little.  "Exactly how much truth would you like to acquire here today?"

            "Oh, God, just tell me.  I'm tired of not knowing what's going on.  How old is this person who becomes completely insane when he sleeps with my daughter?"

            "Well, I believe he was in his mid twenties when he became a vampire, and that was in 1753, so that would make him--"

            "Oh, my God!  I don't even want to do that math.  He's over two hundred years old?"

            "Well, yes, actually, he is."

            Joyce put her face in her hands.  "I really don't like this.  I really don't want him seeing her." 

            Giles leaned forward.  Joyce lowered her hands to the desk, trying to gather herself, and Giles touched her fingers gently.  "If it's any consolation, he does care for her a great deal.  If he didn't--well, if he didn't love her, what happened to him would not have happened.  To be honest, Ms. Summers, at this point she's probably safer with him than she is with just about anyone else I could think of."

            "Please explain that to me.  How is she safer with a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old vampire than with, say, that nice boy Xander?"

            Giles grinned a little.  "Xander.  Interesting choice."  He cleared his throat.  "Angel is not a young man at the mercy of his hormones.  He's driven by guilt more than anything else, and a strong sense of honor I can only describe as typically eighteenth century.  They have a very strong incentive to keep their relationship platonic.  And, to be honest, I don't think I've ever seen two people more intensely devoted to each other."

            There was little left to do at this point but sit there shaking her head in shock.  "I'm her mother.  And I didn't know any of this."

            "I'm sorry.  I know this must be difficult for you."

            "You have no idea."  She took a long breath, shaking her head.  "Well.  Thank you for your insight.  Now I just have to figure out what to say to Buffy."

#

            The meeting with Mr. Giles had thrown her schedule off, so she ended up staying late at the gallery.  She called Buffy to let her know she wouldn't be home until after dark, and to go ahead and start patrol if she wanted to, then finished up her work and headed home.

            The car broke down halfway there.

            "Oh, this is just uncalled for," she said to no one as she tried for the fifth time to restart the car.  The engine refused to turn over.  The gas gauge read half full, so that wasn't it.  To add insult to injury, she'd forgotten to recharge the batteries in her cell phone.  She'd have to walk to a gas station or something.  With a resigned sigh, she grabbed her purse and got started.  It was only a block or two, less if she cut through the graveyard.

            Normally she would have avoided that particular shortcut, but it occurred to her that she might run into Buffy if she went that way.  So, swallowing the normal aversion she had to the place, she slipped in through the gate and headed through the forest of tombstones.

            The moonlight cast eerie shadows all around her.  Some of them seemed to be moving.  She stopped once or twice, certain she'd seen something.  Maybe it was Buffy, she thought, forcing that idea to drown out the possibility that it might be some kind of otherworldly creature out to kill her.  Funny, she'd just gotten old enough and wise enough to convince herself the cemetery wasn't anything to be afraid of when her daughter had made her realize it actually was.

            Well.  Halfway through the graveyard and no sign of Buffy.  She'd have to catch up with her at home and explain what had happened . . .

            Suddenly, rough hands grabbed her from behind.  She gasped.  She'd seen no shadows, heard no sounds, but here she was, firmly held in the grip of someone very large and strong.

            "I told you. There's always someone stupid enough to wander through here."  The voice in her ear was harsh and lispy.  Another figure appeared in front of her.  Unmistakably vampiric, with fangs at the ready. 

            "This one smells like the Slayer," the second vampire said.

            Joyce couldn't bring herself to move.  She could only stare.  She had no idea what to do.  Unlike Buffy, she didn't make a habit of carrying holy water or stakes in her purse.  She didn't even wear a cross, though she rather imagined that would have been little protection in this case.

            The first voice hissed again in her ear.  "You know the Slayer?"

            "I--I'm her mother," Joyce managed.  "You kill me and she'll be mighty pissed at you.  You don't want that, do you?"

            Experimentally, she jerked against her captor's grasp.  But these creatures were horribly strong.  She couldn't even budge a finger of the hand that gripped her. 

            The vampire in front of her laughed.  "The Slayer's mother.  Goodness, I had no idea we'd caught us such a fine meal."  The direction of his gaze told Joyce he was locking eyes with the vampire that held her.  "Leave some for me."

            Shit.  They were going to kill her, anyway.  Frantic now, Joyce brought her foot down backwards, viciously scraping the vampire's shin with the heel of her shoe.  To her great satisfaction, it howled and let her go.  She backed up, rummaging through her purse.  "Don't touch me again!" she said.  "I've got garlic and holy water and everything else in here!"

            It had been too much to hope, of course, that this would scare them off.  They looked at each other, then advanced again.  And of course Joyce had nothing to back up her claim.  She couldn't outrun them, she knew.  And she had little hope of bluffing her way out of this . . .

            Someone--or something--else grabbed her, again from behind.  A strong arm wrapped around her, across her chest, shoving her hard up against a strong, male body.  And another voice spoke in her ear, still vampire-lispy but frighteningly familiar.

            "Back up, boys.  This one's mine."

            This gave the other two vampires pause.  They stared, wide-eyed.  Joyce wasn't sure if she should still be afraid or not.  The arm across her chest gripped her firmly, but the big hand that clutched her shoulder was familiar.  The same broad palm that had cupped Buffy's cheek last night, the same long, graceful fingers that had touched her, so gently.  Joyce was going to have bruises from those fingers tomorrow.

            The pair of vampires seemed similarly flummoxed.  They looked at each other.

            "Angelus?" one of them finally said.  "We heard the Slayer killed you."

            A cackle sounded in Joyce's ear, high-pitched and manic.  "She did.  And I came back.  So you think you two freaks can kill me?  I don't think so."  He shifted, lunging toward them without letting Joyce go.  She had little choice but to move with him.  "So run before I decide to put you both out of your misery."

            They ran.  Not until they had disappeared into the darkness did the arm around Joyce's chest loosen.  The hard, frightening grip relaxed, turning her gently around.

            "Joyce, are you all right?"

            She looked up into Angel's face, except it wasn't Angel's face. He wore the demonic forehead and yellow eyes of a vampire.  Not to mention the mouth full of fangs.

            "Yes," she managed in a small voice, backing away from him.

            "What are you doing out here?"

            "I . . . my car . . ."  She pointed back toward the road where the car had broken down.  Her hand was shaking.

            He looked where she was pointing.  When he looked back his face was human again.  She closed her eyes and took a breath.

            "Are you sure you're all right?" he asked.

            "Yes.  I just . . . I've never . . ."  She made a vague gesture toward him.  "I've never seen . . ."

            "Oh."  He looked embarrassed.  "I'm sorry.  Out here I'm a little more . . . convincing . . . that way."  He paused, studying her face.  Joyce couldn't even imagine what she might look like.  She was still shaking.  "But . . ." he ventured, "you knew, right?  I mean, this isn't a big, 'Oh, my God, Angel's a vampire,' moment, is it?"

            Somehow she managed to shake her head.  "No.  I knew.  I just found out for sure this morning, but I knew."

            He reached out, cupping her shoulder.  It was all she could do to keep from flinching.  "You really don't look so good.  Let's get you back to your car."

            She stumbled after him, still gathering the shattered bits of her composure.  He didn't let go of her, but slid his hand down her arm, as if he was afraid she might fall down at some point.  She didn't blame him; she was still a little light-headed with adrenaline and fear.

            "Where's Buffy?" she finally managed as they exited the cemetery.

            "Oh, she's at home.  Had a paper to write or something.  She said she'd come out later if she could, but she's probably skipping patrol tonight."  He let her go finally, after a look at her in the streetlights.  "Are you sure you're okay?"

            "Yeah.  I've just . . . never been attacked by vampires before."  She paused, managing a smile.  "Or rescued by one, for that matter."  Absently, she rubbed her shoulder.

            "Did I hurt you?"         

            "A little.  Just a couple of bruises, I think."  She gave a rueful laugh.  "Way better than being bitten to death."

            "Sorry about that.  I'm used to dealing with Buffy."  He smiled.  "She can beat the living shit out of me, you know.  And has, on several occasions.  Are we headed the right way?"

            "Yes, it's right over there.  It just stalled out.  I'm not sure what's wrong."

            They crossed the street to the car.

            "Pop the hood," said Angel.  "I'll take a look."

            Joyce got into the car and pulled the lever to release the hood, then came back around to watch Angel.  "It's hard to remember she's so strong," she said after a moment.  "I mean, she's such a little thing."

            Angel snorted.  "Yeah.  It's even more startling when you're my size and she picks you up and throws you across the room."  He leaned in over the engine, poking and peering.  "I can't see what's wrong right off.  How about I walk you home, then I can come back and take care of this for you?"

            "That would be . . . most appreciated.  Thank you." 

            He closed the hood, Joyce locked the car, and they started off.

            Angel walked a little ahead of her, and she could tell he was watching, alert to the possibility they might be followed.  Something about his stance reassured her.  He walked like he knew what he was doing.  This was what Giles meant, then, when he said Buffy was safer with him.  Angel's size, his vampire strength, his willingness and ability to play the hero when necessary, were all assets that couldn't be ignored.

            She sped up a little, catching up to him.  He caught sight of her and slowed down.  "Sorry."

            "No, it's all right."  Cautiously, she touched his elbow.  "I know this isn't the best time, but could we talk?"

            He stopped walking, looked at her, then nodded.  "The ice cream bar keeps its outside lights on all night."

            "Good.  Then let's go there."

            He hunched his shoulders a little as he started walking again, changing course.  Joyce chewed her lip and followed, wondering what exactly she was going to say to him.

            The ice cream bar had several outside tables, all well-lit even though the store itself was closed.  Angel slid into a seat and Joyce could tell from his expression that he was expecting a serious dressing down.  She sat across from him and folded her hands on the table.

            "Angel, I'm very uncomfortable with what's been going on lately," she started.

            He looked at her out of the tops of his eyes, the glint of dark brown barely visible past drawn-down brows.  "You don't want me to see Buffy."

            "I really don't."

            He laid his hands flat on the table and stared at them.  He'd worn rings once, she remembered, but now his fingers were bare.  "Don't ask me to do this."

            "I'm not.  I don't like it that you're seeing each other but I'm not going to ask you to stop."

            He looked up again, meeting her gaze this time, obviously surprised. 

            "I spoke to Mr. Giles, and he feels that Buffy is probably safer on patrol with you than she would be alone.  He trusts you, so I'm going to trust you, as well."

            Angel made a mirthless sound that was almost a laugh.  "That's . . . unexpected."

            "You saved my life tonight," Joyce said.  "I owe you at least the benefit of the doubt."

            "I love her," he said, suddenly, a kind of thin desperation in his voice.  "You should know that."

            She nodded, not sure what to say, and he fumbled on.  "I can't even . . . I can't express what I feel for her.  It's too . . . it's more than I--"  He stopped.  On an impulse, Joyce reached out and touched his hand lightly.

            "You'll take care of her," she said.

            "I will."

            "But if you ever show up crazy in my driveway again, I will kill you."

            To her surprise, he chuckled.  "Probably a very good idea."

            Joyce smiled.  "None of the parenting books ever said it was a good thing to threaten to kill your daughter's boyfriend."

            Angel laughed again.  "Did they say anything about the boyfriend being a vampire?"

            "No, I can't say they did."  She rose to her feet.  "Let's get going.  Buffy's probably worried."

            He walked her the rest of the way home, but stopped just shy of the doorstep.  "I'll go take care of the car."

            "No," she said.  "I'll just call the motor club and have them pick it up."

            An odd expression flitted across his face, as if she'd hurt him.  "Okay.  I'll, um, just head on home, then."

            Joyce smiled and shook her head.  "No.  You're going to come in for a cup of tea."

            He stared at her.  "I'm sorry?"

            "Or coffee, or hot chocolate, or whatever you like."

            "I don't think you have what I like."  His mouth twitched, but she couldn't tell if it was because he was amused at her or because he was mocking himself.

            Nevertheless, she smiled.  "Just come in, Angel."

            He shrugged, then smiled, then took the last step up onto the doorstep.  She pushed open the door and let him in.

END.