Smack!

Flinching in spite of yourself, you quickly pull your left hand back from the bowl of raw cookie dough, startled, ashamed— you'd blush were you physically capable.

"Stupid boy, write with your right hand, not with your left – look, you've blotted your copybook with all those smudges. Go stand in the corner and think about what you've done!"

"Stupid boy!"

"…stupid boy!"

"…stupid…!"

Surrounded by homework, Dawn looks at you from the other side of the kitchen table and giggles.

You glare at Buffy's sister... as a very small you (No, that wasn't me, that was WILLIAM!) trudges to the corner of shame while the other boys snigger, trying hard not to cry but miserably failing at it.

"Dawnie!" Joyce scolds the Niblet while carefully placing spoonfuls of raw dough on baking trays after swatting your hand with a wooden spoon for sticking it in the bowl, "Math. Fractions. Focus. You have a test tomorrow."

"Moooooom!" The Niblet grouses as you, angry and embarrassed, abruptly stand up, adjusting your duster with sharp, mechanical jerks before wordlessly heading for the door, the echoing sting of an iron ferruled ruler a newly summoned ghost across the knuckles of your left hand for only doing what came naturally.

"And you," You halt, turn, and look back.

Joyce wryly gestures at your just abandoned chair with her wooden spoon, one hand briefly touching her temple, "You should know better!" She must have seen something in your eyes because she hesitates ever so slightly with a small frown before scooping up a small mound of chocolate studded dough onto a saucer before handing it to you and one to Dawn. "Oh, all right – the stuff's fattening, but there's no other taste like it. Have some, just no more sticking your hands in the dough – other people have to eat it too, you know."

She smiles at you as you sit down.

Two trays now in the oven, Joyce sits beside her daughter, checking her work, "Dawn, thirty more minutes of studying and off to bed with you."

She has set aside a little bowl of dough for herself, too.

You sit in her comfortably sweltering kitchen, savoring the gritty barely-tasted sweetness one slow bite at a time, old humiliations slowly fading into the background, profoundly grateful for Joyce's casual kindness, eating with your left hand, old ghosts temporarily at bay…

…so that one evening a few weeks later, when you noticed Buffy's mum walking home alone from her book club meeting two blocks over, you stepped out of the shadows between the streetlamps without announcing yourself.

Because it's fun.

As anticipated, she starts, making you grin. The demon that animates you may be muzzled, but it still enjoys itself any which way it can.

Still, you turn your face away so that you don't alarm her.

Too much. Anyway, she could be useful. Later.

She's… disoriented, lost in her own neighborhood, but she relaxes. It's only you, the odd lad who occasionally shows up in her kitchen after sundown, always missing her oldest daughter and her friends by a few minutes of them leaving for some party or study group or whatever… who'll stay for a cuppa with the little marshmallows that you (No, WILLIAM!) find enchanting despite yourself, or better, a beer and then be gone when she turns around to say something while washing up for the evening.

Or who once slouched in her living room, foot bouncing nervously while her daughter got ready upstairs… for something or other… something neither you nor Buffy ever bothered to explain to her.

Let her think I'm harmless – for now. Still, why doesn't she remember that time… I… stood behind her, taunting Buffy and Peaches…?

Sunnydale has that effect, even after the Mayor bit the big one, a gentle haze settles down in the brain after something horrible happens… softening the trauma, relaxing all but the worst of the pain… but when you leave the place, it's like stepping into daylight –Joyce is no exception.

She straightens, unconsciously touching her temple,

She smells… wrong.

Sick.

Hands in pockets, you, a loose cannonball of unrestrained Id who until recently never bothered to look back at the careening trail of rubble you leave behind, saunter beside the mother of someone you blackly hate, down the still warm sidewalk. The sun's trapped heat radiates gently up from beneath your boots, caressing your face as she talks about the book she and her group have been discussing. Seeing as you're not in the mood to read and your stolen telly's on the blink, you listen with one ear, making polite noncommittal noises calculated to lull, tracking what's stalking her on the other side of the tall hedge.

It's a new one, just emerged from the grave by the dank smell of it, clumsy, nothing like you, just some slob's random feed messily disposed of, left to rise unprotected, uninstructed… uncherished.

Hard, you excuse yourself, leaving Joyce in a pool of light, melting into the night, easing through a gap in the stinking boxwood, coming up behind your prey, Joyce's predator.

Clumsy bugger, more hunger than brains!

With a blurred dance of 1-2-3 and a brutally efficient staking as 4, you dispose of it in near silence: a puff of dust quickly dispersed by the desert wind which creeps into Sunnydale come sundown.

Demon-faced and grinning, you unconsciously adjust yourself like a cat from your brief, satisfying scuffle in the dark, lighting up a fag one-handed, satiated. So what if it's only some amateur's discard? Pocketing your lighter, you step back on the sidewalk, not a hair out of place, rejoining Joyce, arousal and release a slowly dispersing pleasurably fizzy afterglow, telling her nothing.

As much as you'd like to get back at Buffy, scaring her mother is not the way to do it… for now.

You aim a long, satiated stream of mentholated smoke towards the full moon, eyes half lidded.

"If you wanted to smoke, you could have asked before sneaking off like that." Joyce looks amused, having no idea what just happened less than ten feet from her. "I quit when I had Buffy. By the time Dawn came along, I'd got out of the habit. Never took it up again. Those things will kill you."

Both of you laugh a little as she resumes her slightly unsteady walk home, reminding you of the rare evenings you, (William) an unwanted byproduct of the demi-monde, and your (William's) once lively little mother, the set-aside mistress of no-one important, on the few rare evenings the tuberculosis would allow her, would stroll the evening streets of your (their) modest section of St. John's Wood, mingling with flower vendors and street people while opera-caped gentlemen and their corseted, bejeweled mistresses clattered past in fine carriages which your (William's) mother couldn't afford. The settlement your (William's) father arrived at when he cast you (them) aside barely covered her modest house, minimal servants, escalating medical expenses, and (your) his education.

Pausing to grind your fag under one heel, you glance over at Joyce. She's dying, like your (William's) mother was, but she looks younger, far younger, even though your (William's) mother bore you (him) at seventeen. Fine lines are showing around her eyes, which are exhausted but alert, and it frightens you (William). They can fix so many things these days - remember how angry you (he) was when you (he) read a random news article in '48 about the latest treatment for tuberculosis that didn't involve cutting the lungs in half and packing the chest cavity with chalk dust or any other number of brutal but ineffective treatments dreamed up by the quacks of your (his) childhood?

All it took were a few injections of some semi-poison and the long, slow coughing death that killed millions, all but vanished.

Maybe there's something like that out there for whatever this is. Still, not my problem.

Let Buffy, let Dawn, deal with it.

Not.

My.

Problem.

When she dies, it'll break Buffy's heart – good!

Joyce stumbles on a perfectly smooth length of sidewalk beneath the next pool of streetlight, wobbling a bit.

Concerned despite concluding that this is not your problem and that you welcome it, you offer her a steadying arm arm the way you (William) once offered one to your (his) mother at the age of sixteen, the two of you (them) nearly the same height. You (He) had thought the two of you them had been quite posh looking back then, and had been pleased at being so grown up.

Laughing, Joyce shakes her head, hand almost but not quite touching her temple, and then accepts your offering anyway, the two of you strolling unmolested through the night and up her front sidewalk, remembering evenings spent similarly with your (his) mother.

Disturbed, you pass the rest of the night in the nearby shadows, leaving behind a small pile of used cigarettes before sunrise…

…which is why you find yourself sitting not long after in a hospital room in stolen scrubs and matching name badge beside a hospital bed, holding Joyce's cold, limp hand in one of yours, half frightened out of your mind.

Nobody bothered to tell me about this.

Nobody.

Low on cash, you'd slipped unnoticed in a back door. The amount of free meals left lying around in this place is stunning. You're not one to let such opportunities flit past you un-tasted: a blood bag here, a blood bag there. Small valuables easily pocketed left laying around: some old hag's wedding ring, some fool's expensive watch, easy pickings which mean comfort the rest of the week upon disposal…

…until you caught Joyce's scent, following it as it wafted in and out of the ambient fug of piss, shit, cancer, and diabetes, finding her alone and asleep in this room of blinking lights and tubes where anyone could harvest her.

Bloody Hell, how could Buffy be so stupid? This place is soddin' dangerous!

Gobsmacked, you'd stood in the doorway staring into the darkened room, fists clenching and unclenching, the world of the brightly lit hall behind you going on, business as usual.

Evil or not, you thought one of them, maybe Willow? Tara? might have at least had the decency to mention this to you.

I hate them. They hate me and all that, but still!

She'd opened her eyes, and you came in, leaving five little dents in the cheap metal doorframe, and sat down on the bed trying not to disconnect anything. Eventually Joyce licked her lips, mumbling, "I didn't know you worked here, Xander. Thanks for dropping by…" before falling asleep again.

You didn't correct Joyce's unintended insult. Instead you held her hand, which was almost as cold as yours, for a few hours, remembering what happened when as a very small boy recovering from a polio epidemic which had ripped through the school you'd (William'd) been sent to, you (William) heard your (his) mother screaming in the night.

Born clumsy, infantile paralysis left you (him) even clumsier. Still, you'd (he'd) blundered stiff-legged minus the heavy iron brace you (he) was supposed to wear from the attic nursery and past the dozing night nurse, before crawling down the long, echoing back staircase and into your (his) mother's room, just as a strange physician pulled the bloody, stillborn body of (your) his only sibling, a girl as you'd (he'd) learned to your (his) grief later while sorting through some family papers looking for the deed to the house, from between your (his) mother's legs.

You'd (He'd) screamed, terrified, as the nurse you'd (he'd) eluded hauled you (him) back upstairs, dosing you (him) with laudanum and warm milk to calm you (him) so that you (he) slept through most of the following day, waking up dizzy, dry-mouthed, and alone. They wouldn't let you (him) see your (his) mother so that when you (he) finally did, it was through the nursery window as she was driven away in a black carriage decked with black plumes, a tiny white coffin wrapped in carnations and little silver bells on her lap.

So, instead of scrounging through the effects of the dying, you found yourself sitting with a woman who not too long before, when you casually handed her your dirty laundry had handed the musty bundle right back to you, saying, "Nope, I already have enough to do. Do it yourself."

You'd leaned against the back door, trying to process it all. You'd tried doing it once yourself with humiliating as well as uncomfortably binding results which chafed. Anyway, Harmony had always taken care of these things. Hell, even Dru would on her better nights— she even seemed to enjoy it! So what was the problem here? It was what women DID. It was what women were FOR.

Joyce noticed your baffled expression, face softening, "I get it. I get it. For all your swagger, you're some sort of homeless, which I thought we'd left behind in L.A., aren't you?"

It was embarrassing, but you didn't corrected her; you are homeless, or at least a squatter on municipal property and living rough, so you let her lead you to the basement laundry room, "You may use my washer and dryer for as long as you need to. In return, mow the lawn or some other chore when I ask and DON'T go crazy with the Tide because we're on a pretty tight budget here… what's wrong?"

You'd just stood there, staring warily at the evil machines.

"Oh, all right, I'll do it for you just this once – but watch closely because from now on, I expect you to do this yourself, and oh my God, that's nasty!" Joyce grimaced as she took the reeking bundle from you and holding it arm's length, dumped the whole thing into the washing machine, "So, while you're waiting for this to cycle through, use the shower in the downstairs bathroom. These pants aren't the only thing that smells. Where do you sleep, the sewer?"

Not. Quite.

Anyway, the entire arrangement had been a relief. You already had to sleep in your clothes out of self-defense, which added to your overall, ahem, aroma PLUS, you don't like the communal shower at the only homeless shelter in Sunnydale. Three of the lads tried involving you in some rough stuff the last time you'd used that particular luxury resort.

"Whoah, back off, mates, this isn't prison. It's a bloody homeless shelter!"

You barely escaped their intended four-man gang bang with you as the unwilling main attraction with your pants, a killer headache, and newly awakened unpleasant memories of certain incidents in an all-boy's school dormitory after dark that a seven-year-old you (William) hadn't enjoyed at all, so you haven't been back since.

But the Y cost money, so do motels, and the rec center at Sunnydale U requires a Student I.D., something you've not managed to snag yet. But thanks to Joyce, as long as you timed your visits with her daughter going on patrol, you could keep your own personal smell down to a manageable level in peace – which made mingling in the Bronze picking pockets a whole Hell of a lot easier.

For that alone you sat there in the disinfectant-stinking ICU, guarding Joyce from the things in this place that are as bad or worse than you until you heard Buffy, Dawn and the rest clattering down the hall sometime around sunrise, only slipping out at the last second, dead-giveaway hair covered with a stolen surgical cap, avoiding trouble because you owed Buffy's mother at least that…

… not long after, as the last shovelful of earth settles, you sit alone in your crypt, surrounded by empties of one sort or another, staring at the pre-recorded inanity on your telly without seeing it.

They didn't invite you to the funeral.

NOT that I would have bloody attended, even if it'd been a night one. Anyway, Peaches was, I think. He showed up after sundown all boo hoo and support. Bloody pouf!

Had they asked, you might have even deigned to be a pallbearer if it was at night.

Captain Cardboard was, the big clumsy oaf. Bet he dropped his side of the coffin before he could even get it to the hearse!

You hated them. You hated them blackly. You even hated Joyce.

No, I don't. Mild dislike, perhaps, but she had been so… kind?

No, tolerant.

You've had everything stripped away from you since meeting these small town nobodies, leaving you naked to face yourself, Joyce being the latest insult to your pride. So why do you…?

Because you can't stand to be alone, you insufferable prat! And now the only person aside from our mum who could stand to be in the same room with us, is… dead, as in really dead!

The pain has to go somewhere or you'll go even crazier than you already are.

Why do I ever always set myself up like this? Why do I allow myself to get attached?

And because Spike only understands pain, but not grief, you allow yourself (No, William!) out for a little while.

William understands grief.

Always obedient, always obliging, the little prat doubles you over in your empty crypt, howling, hands clawing once more after something you've lost and will never have again.