It was constant. Never sudden. Something like this is never sudden, though at the same time it is. But this wasn't sudden. It had been heading here for a long time. Arguments over small things, bickering. "Money doesn't grow on trees" was a favorite he used to rant out. As though I didn't know, as though I were ignorant to this fact. The quiet, naïve little wife. The arguments were minimal and quick. Over as soon as they had started. He'd snatch a bill off me, I'd snatch it back. He'd complain about Buffy's Cheerleading fees, Dawn's toys. Then we'd both agree we could afford it, work together. But it always lingered, there between us. The argument. Creating an ever larger space between us. They say no matter what you can always build bridges, but I came to realize it depended on how large the river was. Constant little arguments, but the kids never knew till they had to. We made sure of that. It was the one thing we never stopped agreeing on.

I used to hear them in the kitchen. I'd be on a game with Dawn. She used to love anything violent. Not violent, violent. But zombie violent. She loved killing everything monsterific. After Merrick found me at school and told me what I was going to be spending the rest of my short life doing, I kinda went off the game. No point playing it when you're living it. But if it kept Dawn distracted then I didn't mind. I didn't want her to notice Mom and Dad arguing. I think they both thought I didn't know either, that their ever raising voices in the kitchen were falling on deaf ears, or we thought it was in good fun, I don't know. Either way, I knew. It started when I was about eleven. Just little things. But when I burnt down the gym things jumped forward to so much worse, as though I'd kick-started things. It was always the kitchen where they argued. Always.

I always wanted to pick one. Pick a favorite. Pick one to side with. That's how it always was on TV. One was right, one was wrong. The kids go with one that's right. But they were both right. Or both wrong. It was the moment Buffy burned down the gym that they started arguing. Mom says no, it was nothing to do with that. Buffy doesn't think so. I do. I don't blame Buffy. I don't want to. I'll blame vampires. If they hadn't been there, Buffy wouldn't have gone pryo and Mom and Dad would still be together. I think. I hope.

We were both ignorant. Too absorbed in our own lives to pay too much attention to Buffy and Dawn. Dawn was a kid doing fine and Buffy was a teenager wanting her own life. We could go to office parties and drink and mingle. They were never my parties, but I enjoyed them though. I knew Hank was showing me off like all the other men there. Bringing out their wives for show 'look which one I got'. But in a way I liked that. It was different from everything at the gallery. There I was stressed, at home I was Mom, here I just was. I enjoyed it.

But we shouldn't have been there. We should have been at home, paying attention to our girls. But we both thought I think that if we kept going to the parties playing the perfectly happy husband and wife it would become that way again, like it used to. Instead we found a confused Dawn, a destroyed school building, and a guilty Buffy.

Every night after burning down the gym. I carried on Slaying. Because Merrick would have wanted me to. He killed himself to protect me, to allow me to keep on doing my job and I wasn't going to stop. It was getting harder and harder though. Slaying just seemed to make everything worse. For me, for Dawn, for Mom and Dad, everybody. I used to climb in through the window to the room and Dawn would be there. Waiting. Holding onto Mr Gordo. She loved that pig more than I did.

"What are you doing here?" I didn't want my sister in my room. She'd look through my things, my diary. And then I'd feel guilty for asking when she said she was here to get away from the argument. The parents at each other again. They always were by that point. They couldn't be in the same room without one disagreement. Mostly about me, "They're not happy any more unless they're arguing..." Dawn was silent when I said that. At first I thought I'd upset her and that just layed on more guilt to what I already carried. Then I sensed someone in the doorway besides Dawn, "One of them's stood behind me right?"

It was Mom. Not Dad. Of course it was Mom. Dad barely looked at me anymore, spoke to me. That's how I knew at least partially it was my fault. That's when I started to patrol less. Mom told me it was no problem, I wouldn't be expelled, everything would be fine. Mom's Denial Mode. Sometimes I wished it would turn out to be truth.

Not just expelled from Hemery. But every school in the district. That was the first nail in the coffin. Or perhaps it was one of many. I don't know. But when the school board said those words followed by 'the decision is final', that's when the facade began to fall away. Hank didn't keep his temper for Buffy, didn't keep any image. Just let it out.

"Expelled Buffy! That'll look great when you apply for college. But hang on, wait, no college for you. You can't go there now!"

"Hank, please-"

"No, Joyce! This calm thing may work for you but I'm mad!"

That's when I knew. The beginning of the end they call it. So true it hurts.

Private school. We tried to get her into private school, but he wouldn't have any of it. Maybe I was being naïve about money then, denial. Even Buffy pointed it out.
"What about money?" She asked only to have Hank reply his favorite phrase. About money and trees.

Buffy ran away. They were arguing and Buffy was gone. I mjight as well have not been there. No one cared. Too bothered about themselves. Mom and Dad stated arguing and everything else went with them. Buffy left with Pike, to Las Vegas I guess. Mom and Dad wouldn't be in the same room together. School got boring. Even the house looked less stable than before. I was eight though. I noticed, felt scared and then played with my toys. Escapism. It starts early in the Summers family. But while I'd be playing with Mr Gordo or my new Barbie doll or whatever it was Mom or Dad had bought me out of guilt recently, I heard them shouting, but didn't understand what they were saying really. Just knew it was bad.

"Don't you even care Hank?"

"Of course I do Joyce but what can we do? She burned down the gym and has now ran away god knows where. I can't just drop work to look for her"

"But she's our daughter. And she's only fifteen! She can't deal with everything that's out there! She could get hurt o-or..."

It would trail off as they both lost energy, but they never lost that bitterness. I didn't know the word then, didn't even know the feeling, but I still felt it. There. Lingering. It was only years after when I was older that I realized what it was.

If I'm honest, I didn't care about the vampires in Las Vegas. I was starting to care less and less. I just wanted my life back, my parents back. But it looked like neither were gonna happen so I wanted out. As soon as possible. So when I found out about the vamp activity in Nevada, I was driving off with Pike before I could even think about leaving a note for Mom and Dad. They wouldn't read it anyway. Too busy fighting to find it.

I liked killing the vamps though. Made everything else fade away. I didn't have to think about what was going on or what might happen, just what I was dealing with now. Just surviving from day to day, fighting for my life. Maybe I was fighting for something else to.

But when I lost Pike as well. That's what brought me back down. Back to earth. No matter what, no matter how I tried to escape, I would always lose. Lose something. I just didn't want to lose my Dad.

The business trips. They're meant to be a sign aren't they? You see it in the movies often enough. Business trips are as deadly to a relationship as a kiss on the forehead. But when it happens to you, you don't think that. You think it's different. That this one's actually real. It's not that he doesn't want to come home. It's that he can't. And so I reasoned with him

"I know you're busy but do you have to go on a trip now? With Buffy gone...and what about Dawn?"

No should have told me enough, but no, I kept at it.

"Well, I really think you should come home. And I think you should rethink your priorities. What about Dawn?"

What about Dawn. That was a question often asked. Strange to know I asked it of him so much when really, she wasn't even there. Didn't make a difference. He still went on those business trips. I didn't ask who with. So it was just me and Dawn. Practice I suppose you could call it.

Came home. On the bus. No idea I'd be doing the same two years later. The future's funny that way. Came home to silence. Came home to questions. Should I answer the door, should I shouldn't I. What should I do? I went to leave. Maybe Dawn could have both parents if I wasn't there. Screwing everything up. I must have made a sound on the porch though. Mom waiting there for any sign. Door flung open and then she flung at me. The kinds of hug that causes oxygen deprivation. This happiness and joy lasted a second before they asked me about the contents of my diary. I didn't see the arguments for a few weeks after that. I was in the nuthouse. Something made me go without a fight. Something made me not argue. Yes, I wanted to escape Slaying and this was a way, yes. But what might have done it the most. Mom told me my friends were afraid of me. And that meant my parents were too.

I don't like to think of then. Of Buffy being away. In that place. It was my fault why she was there. I found her diary, read it. Gave it to Mom. Mom worried. Gave it to Dad. Dad gave it back to Mom. Then they both gave it to the mental institution and they took Buffy with it. I was left in the house. Alone. Sad. Listening to Mom and Dad arguing even more than usual. I used to climb out of bed and listen on the landing, through the gate, listen to what they were saying. Trying to understand what was going on.

It was blame next. Fist money, then daughters, then general, then blame. The stages of arguments. The stages of separation. The stages of divorce.

"You can't blame me for what's happening with Buffy, Joyce"

Oh but I could. And did. It was better than blaming myself after all.

"I've been rock solid in the Father-husband department. She's the one who's changed"

"She's still our daughter" I would say, but when he got like this those words no longer seemed to register in the same way What about Dawn never reached him. He was too mad.

"God Joyce, don't be a drama queen" Patronizing became a theme with him. I was the one being dramatic, over-reacting. Not him, the one who was raising his voice and getting mad. Oh no, not him. It was me. Obviously. I don't know why we didn't just call it quits then. "She did a complete one eighty on us and now you're trying to change into June Cleaver-"

"Maybe it's time we did change Hank. Maybe it's time we grew up a little. It's not just you and me and dinners and drinks with friends anymore. Either we hold this family together now or it's gone"

Yes, I do know. Neither of us wanted to. For the girls. A mantra. For the girls. For the girls.

Dawn was listening in at the landing.

I came out of the asylum not talking about Slaying. Or anything like that. I'd learnt. I knew now. And that's when I quit. It was the only way to give everyone what they need; normalcy. To carry on being the Slayer was selfish for my family. They didn't need that and so they weren't going to get it. I quit.

I quit Slaying and Dawn was happy and Mom was happy and Dad was happy and they were together and stayed together because I was back in school and everything was normal again.

Okay, so I quit Slaying. Dawn was happy I was back as were my parents. But that didn't stop things. Didn't stop it all falling apart.

"Buffy, Dawn. I know how hard it is for you to hear."

"It's hard for us to say"

"And well, your Mother and I think this is for the best."

"For a while. To see how things work out" I added in. Made sure it didn't sound as horrible as I knew it was for them.

"A separation. And I'm just moving out, I'm not leaving you"

A separation. You say it's just to see how things go. But really, doesn't that mean let's see if our lives are better without each other in them. And since you already can't stand to be in the same room as one another you already know the answer. It's a pretense, a process, built into you. For the kids. For the girls.

It wasn't really real. Just words. Just phrases. Until Daddy said the words 'time to go'. Then it hurt. Got in there and ripped. Buffy ran to Dad. I ran to Mom. I didn't want to say bye to Dad and hugging him would be saying bye. So I hugged Mom instead. Burying myself into her. Trying to make everything else disappear. Focused on the design on her top, smell of her perfume. The way her bracelet was sort of digging painfully into my cheek. Anything except the fact that Daddy was leaving.

"I know it's hard honey, I know..." Mom kept repeating to us. But no, she didn't. She chose this. We didn't. We just wanted everything back together. Instead of it all falling apart.

Going to work everyday. Everything around him. The stress the noise. No wonder he broke. No wonder tensions were high. It was work. I made excuses. Over and over and over again in my head as I went to visit him at work. I needed to see him. Needed confirmation that he hadn't left our lives completely. That he hadn't disappeared.

Business meeting his secretary said. With a woman. That plagued me. More so when I walked past them in a restaurant.

Together. Laughing. Smiling. A thrill on the side? A lunch meeting. Isn't that how all affairs start? A kiss on the cheek seemed so much more. Like he was pressing her against the wall to kiss her. As though it was on the lips. As though he were purposely doing this in front of me. Behind Mom. It all hurt.

So when Mom asked 'Did you see your Father today?' I said no. Because I hadn't. I had seen someone else. He was someone else.

Outside I was Mom. Cool Mom exterior. I was cooking any breakfast they wanted. Mom Guilt Motivation. But inside I was going crazy. All of it teaing me apart. The suspicion. The doubt. The anger. I felt I had every reason to feel that way. Felt I knew who's fault it was. So I just kept going. One day at a time working on not going crazy. Not snapping. Just worked at being Mom. I don't think I was Mom before. I always thought before that somehow I could be a Mom whilst still being the wife and still being Joyce Summers. Mom isn't a though, it's the. And without Hank, that's what I realized.

When Dad and Mom started splitting their stuff, what he was taking, what she was keeping. That's when I knew. They thought I was too young to realize but.,..I knew. Everything was tearing at the seams, even belonging. Who had this record? Who's taking The Clash? Who? All take no give. All that's left behind is half of what we had.

Of all the arguing they'd ever done, all the things they'd ever said to each other, the words that really cut into me? The words that told me there was no going back?

"Fine, Hank."

The full stop at the end was audible.

I heard them talking in Buffy's room. Crying practically. Blaming one another.

"I gave them your diary"

"I burnt down the gym"

"I kept wanting things.."

"I got kicked out of school"

I walked in. Held them. There was nothing else I could do. I was going to have to be Mom and Dad and right now I was struggling to be just Mom.

"Stop, it's no one's fault..." I told them, "It's only for a little while" Yes. A little while. Until the divorce.

Little while. She looked honest. But Will once told me honest faces come attached to liars. And right then, Mom was lying for all she was worth. But I knew why. Understood. Appreciated. Those lies are what got us all through it. Without them, being forced to face the cold hard truth. We would have all fallen apart. More than we did anyway.

The arguments remained in the kitchen. Just now they were over the phone. Dad was speaking so loud to Mom, I could hear his half of the conversation as well.

"I'm sorry Joyce. This is hard for me too"

Mom scoffed at that. The anger she kept hidden from us coming out.

"Hard to sit in a hotel room eating take-out and watching the Dodgers?"

I used to love being taken to see the L.A Dodgers with Dad. It was always a hot summer day. Always. Never rained.

"That's not fair"

"None of this is fair Hank"

"I know. I'm sorry. I'll talk to them tomorrow"

Them. Dad meant us.

"The truth?" Mom asked and Dad agreed.

The truth. The end of the lies. The start of the pain. And everything truly did fall apart.

Moving seemed the only option. Fresh start. For all of us. We needed it.

"I keep thinking...L.A already has too many galleries." I told them we should consider moving.

"Moving?" I was devastated. This was home. The only thing we had left about our life. Our life with Dad, Our family life. And Mom wanted to leave it, forget all about it.

"You and me."

Mom didn't mention me. I was the kid. I would 'adapt'. It was her and Buffy who needed the fresh start and I was expected to go along for the ride.

"New town. New start" She carried on. That smile of Mom's. The one you knew meant she wasn't as happy as she was trying to convince us. But she carried on smiling. I missed that smile. "What do you think?"

"You're not getting back together are you?" Buffy asked but it didn't need answering. We already knew. All of us sat at the table. Knowing.

It's my fault Buffy.

No. It's mine.

I should have been more supportive.

I shouldn't have read Buffy's diary.

I shouldn't have gotten expelled.

It's my fault.