Copyright June 2000
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
This was going to be difficult, that was a given; there was no getting around it, so the question was how to reduce it to bearable levels. She had heard him turn off the shower about the time she finished dressing, and now she busied herself in the kitchen. He wouldn't be in any hurry, she knew, but she couldn't see him dawdling, either. He wasn't the type to dodge the inevitable just because it was awkward.
She sighed to herself; why couldn't he be more of a coward? It would simplify things enormously. In fact, they wouldn't be here at all if he weren't so damned earnest and dutiful. (Of course, the world might not be here, either. There was always that.) He was who he was, and she was who she was, and this was where they were, world without end, amen. Live with it, deal with it, get on with it.
With apt timing, he entered the kitchen just as the teakettle began to whistle. His hair was damp and characteristically untidy, and he wore the warmup suit she had laid out for him, obviously uncomfortable but carrying himself with a kind of fatalistic dignity. "Have a seat," she told him briskly. "Tea will be ready in a few minutes."
"Ah," he said. "Thank you." He took a chair, and watched her warily through wire-framed glasses. Having nothing to offer him besides the warmup suit (two sizes too large for her, it hadn't shrunk with cleaning as she had expected, but still tight on him), she had chosen her own attire with some thought to putting him at ease, and now wore a light knit blouse beneath an open men's-style shirt, with khaki shorts to complete an outfit intended to convey 'casual' without suggesting anything else.
It seemed to be working; at least, he didn't have the trapped-animal expression she had seen in most of their recent encounters. "I feel I must apologize again," he began, the familiar nervous stammer for once not in evidence. "My presence here is an unnecessary imposition …"
She interrupted him firmly. "Giles, please. After last night, where else would you be? This was my choice, we both know that."
"Yes. Well." He blinked at her with the habitual discomfiture that could be every bit as maddening as endearing. "Given the circumstances, it was perhaps not an altogether free choice. It was … irresponsible of me to call upon you as I did."
"I wouldn't want it to become a regular Friday night thing with us," she agreed, "but I'm not sorry. It's nice to know I have something to offer besides paying the bills and putting breakfast on the table. Speaking of which, would you like some toast along with the tea?"
"Yes, thank you." He removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. "All the same, in regard to our, um, activities last night, I believe it would be best if we —"
"Don't tell Buffy," she finished for him. "Way ahead of you."
He waited without speaking while she made toast for the both of them, then joined him at the table, tea for him and fresh-squeezed orange juice for herself. The silence between them, usually strained, was for once actually companionable. Not unexpected, after what they had shared in the pre-dawn hours: hearts racing, blood surging, crying out together at the final explosion …
Which reminded her. "I have your clothes in the wash," she told him. "I'll dry them on the delicate cycle, so it may be awhile before they're done."
"Indeed?" He looked to her with raised eyebrows. "Given the effect the cruitl's visceral fluids had on my skin and lungs, I had rather assumed my apparel was to be consigned to the rubbish bin, if not burned outright."
"I'm just glad we were only a few blocks from here when you started wheezing, and that showering the stuff off was enough to get you breathing okay again." She wagged a finger at him. "I thought you'd stay in there forever, though. You had me worried."
"Yes, your periodic checks made your concerns quite clear. I'm sorry to have alarmed you, but I wanted to be thorough. Such toxic effects, when they do occur, tend to be serious."
"Well, you seem to have come through it all right." She spread jam on a slice of toast. "As for your clothes, I don't give up so easily. I have some protein solvents that will take out almost anything, if you can get to it quick enough. And tweed doesn't show stains the way most of Buffy's stuff does."
"One of the advantages of being a traditional Briton." His smile was almost too faint to be seen. "Yes, I had forgotten you would have prior experience with … unconventional laundering tasks."
"Let's just say I could probably give lessons to the EPA." She returned the smile. "Over the years I've had to deal with blood, slime, tar, scales, ashes — lots of ashes! — paint, ichor, mucus, resin: you name it, I've seen it. Once, in the cuff of her jeans, I found an inch or so of rubbery flesh with suckers on it. Must have been part of a tentacle of some kind, though God only knows from what."
"Mm, yes." He took a careful sip of the tea. "I presume you made that discovery after you had become aware of her calling?"
"No, before. If you can believe it, I convinced myself it was from some biology lab dissection." She shook her head. "I was so willfully blind for so long, she must think her mother is the biggest idiot who ever lived."
"She doesn't," Giles replied, gently but with the vaguest hint of underlying iron. "Nor do I. If you must know …" He trailed off, ruminated for several seconds, then went on. "In most cases, the Chosen One comes from a known pool of candidates. The Council of Watchers expends substantial time and effort to ascertain their identities and prepare them for the eventuality of being summoned, so that in almost every instance the Slayer has received years of training and education by the time she is, um, activated.
"Buffy did not. For reasons difficult to explain, we were unable to locate her until after she became the Chosen One. She was catapulted into the most lethal combat on this planet with less preparation than is provided for the average cab driver, and yet she has become possibly the greatest Slayer in history. Even granting her own remarkable qualities, one must suppose some additional reason for her success." His gaze rested on Joyce. "I personally believe parental example to be the most likely explanation. Occasionally I've fancied that, under other circumstances, you might have been Slayer material yourself."
Something in his tone told her this wasn't gallant flattery, he actually meant it. "That's really nice of you, but I'm afraid I can't agree. She and I are nothing alike, much as I might wish we were. That time she was ill, and came after the vampire who had kidnapped me: right then she was no stronger than I was, but she still outfought him and outthought him and burned his black heart out. That's not me. I could never be like that."
Giles looked away, blinking rapidly, suddenly flustered for no reason she could see. "Um. Yes. Perhaps. She is indeed unique. But even before you learned of your daughter's status, I heard reports of your intervening with a fire axe at a critical point; and, of course, there was your quick action with the machete earlier this morning. You underrate yourself, I think."
She sighed. "I wish I believed that. I wish I thought Buffy believed it. You know she sent me out of town, just before graduation?"
"I knew," he admitted. He would not insult her by adding that he had been relieved at knowing she would be out of harm's way.
"Leaving was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Joyce went on, her eyes bright with tears she would never, never shed in his presence. "But she said I would get her killed if I stayed. What else could I do, once she told me that?"
Giles drew in a sharp breath. "She told you? She gave you a direct warning?" He was absolutely gaping at her, and pulled himself together with a start. "Forgive me, I … I had always assumed she averted your attendance at the ceremony by some subterfuge; that's what the other youngsters did. For her to put that kind of trust in you … well, it is really quite extraordinary."
"Why?" she asked, with a bitterness he had heard from her only once before. "Rule Seven in the Slayer Ops Manual? Never tell your mother the truth?"
Here, at least, he was on firm ground, for he had pondered this matter for months. "Not at all. Do you recall last year when she was missing, and you stated that you blamed me for her having concealed her secret life from you? You were quite correct to do so, and at the same time quite mistaken. It is indeed imperative that the Slayer operate in secret, and I repeatedly sought to impress on her that no one should be informed unnecessarily; and yes, I specifically enjoined her against telling you. Surely, however, you more than any other must know she has a mind of her own. No matter how stringently I insisted, she would not have hidden the truth from you, had not she thought it best."
"And then I found out anyhow," Joyce replied softly. "And nothing changed except that she stopped making up stories. She still won't tell me what's going on in her life; the only difference is, I know now that the truth, whatever it is, will be worse than I ever would have dreamed." She looked to him with a grief that struck him to the heart. "How can you say she trusts me? The library — at least while it was still standing — was her second home. She spent more time with you, even outside school hours, than she ever did here. When all hell was about to break loose at graduation, what did she do? She clustered together with you and Willow and Xander and Angel and Oz and even Cordelia, with everyone except me. I was the one she sent away. I was the one she didn't need."
Caught up in the pain of that memory, she had failed to note the thunderclouds gathering in Giles' expression, so she was taken completely by surprise when he slammed his fist down onto the table with an impact that made his teacup jump. "You," he said in the harshest tone she had ever heard him use, "were the one she couldn't afford to lose. No, be quiet! The library may have been a second home for me, but for her it was headquarters. She went there to plan, and arm herself, and work out strategies with the others. She came here to rest, and be with her mother, and renew her strength." He glared at her, breathing heavily. "You put your finger on it, right enough: she loves the rest of us, and it would tear her heart if any of us were to die, but she takes us into battle all the same. You she insulates, seals away from it all, she won't even tell you about it. She needs us, she relies upon us, we're her sword and her shield and her counsel and her confidants and her good right arm; but you're her life, the last link to what she had before her world went insane. So if she has to hurt your feelings to keep you safe, to preserve one small corner of creation where she doesn't have to be the sodding Slayer … well, I say, buckle to, girl! Tally-bleeding-ho!"
Joyce stared at the apparition seated opposite her: red-faced, wild-eyed, nostrils flaring and hair askew, in a tangerine velour warmup suit, and to their mutual astonishment she burst out laughing. Giles held the fierce expression for a few more seconds, then his mouth twitched and the fire went out of his eyes.
"Yes, well," he murmured. "Now that I've quite finished my little jeremiad …"
"No, no, I'm sorry," she said, still shaking with sporadic giggles. "You were right, look at me feeling sorry for myself!" She regarded him with something like wonder. "I can't believe it: you just cut me off at the knees, and I feel better than I have in weeks."
"Um, yes," Giles said. "I suppose one should, should never underestimate the therapeutic value of verbal abuse."
Joyce let out another little laugh, and started to say something more, then checked. "Oh. Oh, hold on a minute, I'll be right back." She stood and hurried from the kitchen, and after a moment Giles went over to refill his cup from the teakettle.
"Sorry for running off like that," she said when she came back in. "I was right, the washing machine was done, I have your clothes in the dryer now. I'm afraid the shirt may be a lost cause, but I think the rest may come out okay."
"I appreciate your efforts regardless of the outcome," he assured her. "You've been far too kind already."
She nodded and resumed her seat at the table. "You know, when you called me last night …"
He closed his eyes, raising a hand to forestall her. "Please, you must believe me, I had no notion events would transpire as they did. The fault is mine, it's clear I grossly mistranslated the scrolls. I thought the cruitl wouldn't emerge from their cocoons for several days yet, and I'd only need a larger vehicle and a bit of assistance to get the pupae to a secluded area for disposal …"
"And all the others were out of town for the weekend, and this was supposed to be no big deal; we've been over that already." She dismissed the subject with an impatient wave. "Come on, Giles, I'm the one who hung up a zombie resurrection mask at Buffy's homecoming party. Give it a rest, for God's sake."
"Of course," he mumbled, removing his glasses in automatic diversion and looking around for something to use in polishing them. No error, this woman could be every bit as disconcerting as her daughter …
As if to prove it, she went on, "What I meant to say was, I was glad you called me because I had already been thinking about getting in touch with you. There was something I wanted the two of us to discuss."
"I see," he said, and it was all too obvious that he was bracing himself for what he thought was coming next. She felt a flash of anger; would the subject have been so terrifying? "What is the matter at issue?" he inquired with careful politeness.
She quelled the momentary resentment. Time to get to business. "What we just went through, with those demon larva things: that wouldn't have been any real problem for Buffy, would it?"
"Why, no, not for her." The seeming change of direction had clearly confused him. "I still feel it was unconscionably careless of me to expose you to that level of risk …"
"I said give it a rest, Giles. Things never go according to plan, that's just life." She quirked a smile at him. "And I'd say we did okay, under the circumstances. The way you went at them — I never would have thought of a shovel as a combat weapon."
"We … acquitted ourselves decently, I'll grant you." He was still watching her with that guarded look. "And I shall certainly add to the current literature that one should withdraw a discreet distance after dousing them with petrol and tossing a match."
"No, wouldn't want to forget that. It's just, those creatures were way down on the threat scale, weren't they? Compared to the kinds of things Buffy normally faces?"
Too late he saw the trap into which he had blundered. "I, I'm not sure I would express it in quite that —"
"Giles, how long do Slayers live? On average?"
There it was, out in the open, and she felt an unworthy satisfaction at seeing him struggle for recovery. "They, er, the histories … I peruse the annals for research purposes, I've never attempted to compile actuarial tables …"
"You're hedging, Giles. I don't deserve that. I've played the game, I've been a good soldier." Her mouth twisted in an instant's spasm of pain. "This isn't a question I'll ever ask Buffy, the last thing she needs is to have my fears dragging her down. But you owe me a straight answer, so I'm waiting: what kind of lifespan can a Slayer realistically expect?"
"It isn't a matter of averages," Giles said reluctantly. "An average would be misleading; the brutal fact is that most die within the first six months. For those who survive that initiation period, the odds improve geometrically. I, ah, I don't know if it's any record, but I saw one reference to a Slayer who was still hale and energetic at the age of sixty-three."
(No point in adding that Mathilde had achieved that longevity by deserting her calling, fleeing her homeland, and taking refuge in a Buddhist nunnery in Nepal; or that in her absence vampire hordes had rampaged through Europe under cover of the Black Death; or that she had expired finally through the efforts of a cadre of mercenary assassins dispatched by the Watchers Council of France, so that a more suitable Slayer could take her place. Why ask for trouble?)
Joyce, however, was unimpressed. "You're still evading the question, which really is an answer in itself. So: she won't have a long life." Giles flinched, but she ignored it. "I can't change what she is, and I suppose I shouldn't even wish for it. She once made a comment about saving the world, and it didn't sound like a joke. But I won't give up just because she's the Chosen One."
"I'm … quite certain there's something here I don't understand," Giles said after several seconds' silence. "You've never given up on her, not even when she thought you had. Obviously you mean something else by that, but you must enlighten me as to what."
"I'm talking about Buffy's future," Joyce said. "However much there is, I want the best there can be. That's why I spoke to Angel, weeks ago." She shook her head angrily. "I felt awful about it. The way those two loved each other, I've never seen such … transcendent passion. But she had no future with him, even he could see that: no children, no days in the sun, no chance of ever growing old together. So he left, and it was like I had cut out her heart myself, but it had to be done."
Giles gave a weary sigh. "If it is any comfort, I concur with your assessment. In fact, I believe Buffy herself has come to accept the, er, long-term correctness of his decision."
"It isn't enough, though," Joyce said. "I learned that from the tantrums the flower children threw in the Sixties: there's no use tearing down something unless you have a clear idea of what will replace it. Buffy starts at UC-Sunnydale in the Fall; what's she going to do, hook up with some guy in Freshman Lit who doesn't have the least idea of who she is or the things she has to deal with? She can't do that. She can't give her heart to someone who doesn't know the truth, and she can't pull some poor unsuspecting boy into that world just because she needs a date."
Still not sure where this was going, Giles observed, "That is a quandary she has faced continually over the last two years."
"But she never settled it," Joyce insisted. "Partly because Angel complicated the picture, but mostly because there IS no solution." She paused. "Except for one. The only hope Buffy has for anything approaching a normal life, of whatever length, is that she be matched with someone who already knows about that world, someone who has already shown that he can hold his own in it."
Giles frowned, and doubt was heavy in his voice when he spoke. "I must say I have serious reservations about such a course of action, although I'm sure Xander would greet your conclusions with heartfelt enthusiasm …"
"Xander?" she blurted. "My God, no! That boy is, is … Giles, I meant you."
He didn't freeze like a deer in the headlights, or drop the teacup, or erupt in a fusillade of stutters, all of which she had catalogued as possibilities. He simply sat quite still, studying her as if she were some intriguing curiosity, before speaking with rigid composure. "What you suggest is utterly out of the question."
"Why?" She wouldn't lower her eyes from his, despite the flush she felt rising to her cheeks. "Are you going to try and tell me that, in all your histories, nothing has ever happened between a Slayer and a Watcher? I know she broke the rules by bringing other people in on her secret, but she's still closer to you than to anyone else. Why is it so impossible?"
"I wouldn't say impossible," he replied, still with that reflexive restraint. "I would say unseemly, and indefensible, and an appalling betrayal of my responsibilities."
Joyce clenched her fists on the table in front of her. "What responsibilities? You were fired as her Watcher, and she doesn't work for the Council anymore. The only reason you're still with her is because you love her. You can't deny it."
"Buffy is indeed dear to me, but not in the way you would wish." He sighed. "Surely it hasn't escaped your notice that I'm old enough to —"
"I know," she interrupted. "You could be her father. But you're not. Please, Giles. Donald Trump does it all the time, just to have another trophy to show off. Can't you at least consider doing it to give her a chance at happiness?"
His hands shot across the table suddenly to close over hers with cruel force, his hard-held discipline vanishing, and in his eyes were all the things they had locked away for months: memory, and hurt, and yearning, and an insistent hunger that threatened to strip away her last defenses. "Joyce, why are you doing this?" he demanded roughly. "Why in heaven's name would you ask such a thing of me?"
Despite the unexpected weakness his touch had triggered, she met his gaze without faltering; he had asked the essential question, and the answer drove out all other considerations. "Because I love my daughter more than anything else on this earth, and so do you. Either one of us would die for her in a heartbeat. Next to that, this is nothing."
The barriers had fallen at last, and all that they were passed between them in that silent moment: conflict, and vulnerability, and anguish, and loss, and need, and implacable resolve. She welcomed the pain where he gripped her hands, and again she whispered the lie that carried the vital truth: "This is nothing."