(Borrowed this nifty graphic from scribesds!)
Title: Leaves, Like the Things of Man
Setting: My "Joy'verse" - that is, the post-Shanshu future for B/A that I've used in previous stories.
Summary: Future generations of Slayers won't have to live like Buffy did. How will she and Angel feel about that?
Notes: Written for the annual challenge at writers_toybox, the Games. The challenge will be running until the end of this month, so there's still time to get yours in!
More notes: This did not come together easily, and I'll be honest, it's kind of out there. It has more to do with Buffy and Angel's respective relationships with their children than their relationship with each other, but I hope it still retains enough extract of B/A to qualify.
Even more notes: The title comes from a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins. It's called "To a Young Child".
Angel weaved his way through the crowd milling around the stadium, frowning at his own lack of direction. He always expected his sense of smell to kick in and point him to Buffy, even though it hadn’t worked like that in decades, and it made him uneasy when he couldn’t immediately find her or his daughters. The seats weren’t all filled yet by any means, but there were still too many people for his own liking.
“Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad!” came a welcome voice, rising over the dull roar of the other spectators. He raised his eyes to find Buffy and Katie waving at him from an excellent seating location, and waved back, relieved to have a destination at last.
“Did you remember the cooler?” Buffy greeted him, thrusting a program into his hands.
He nodded. “I couldn’t fit all of the sodas into it, though, so I left a few at home.”
“What? Well which ones did you leave? Why didn’t you just take the other cooler too? We still have that, don’t we? The little red one? I told Joy we’d bring her favorites. Are there going to be enough? I wanted to share with Dawn and her family. You know, that little red cooler? It was in the basement?”
Angel let her questions run themselves out and didn’t speak until she had finished and was staring at him expectantly. “So you’re a little nervous,” he said.
“She’s been like this all day,” Katie informed him. She was holding a bright orange maple leaf, twirling it constantly but handling it with her characteristic quiet appreciation for nature. Autumn was her favorite season.
Buffy looked cross for a moment, then said to Katie, who was sitting between them, “Switch places with me, sweetface?”
Katie rolled her eyes, saying, “I’ll still be able to hear you,” but complied.
“Are you afraid Joy won’t place high?” Angel asked once Buffy was next to him.
“What? We know better than that, Angel. Joy and I had a nice long talk about how it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, what matters is how you respect the cliche. Besides, she’s the best Slayer out there. She always is.”
Buffy sighed. “She said some of the other competitors implied that she was going to get preferential treatment. Because of us.”
He wished that surprised him. “She won’t.”
“I know she won’t. She knows she won’t. But now she can either win and have all of her peers thinking she didn’t deserve it, or she can do her best and still fall short because the judges are overcompensating to prove that they’re unbiased.”
Put that way, Joy’s situation did seem rather hopeless, and it was unlikely that Buffy had misread the cues. “What did you tell her?” Angel asked.
Buffy shrugged, unhappy. “I told her to do her best and not to worry about what anyone else thought. I told her we’d be up here screaming our lungs out for her. You know. All the stuff your mother says to you that doesn’t make you feel better.”
“But she still promised me she’d win,” Katie put in.
Angel smiled. “Because you said you liked the trophy?”
“Yup.” She carefully tucked her leaf into a buttonhole. “It’s really pretty.”
“Okay, Miss Kathleen,” said Buffy. “Do I have to revisit the whole win-or-lose lecture for your benefit, too?”
Angel knew, and he knew Buffy knew, that Katie didn’t need any such reminder. Unlike Joy, she had never displayed a competitive streak. If her sister handed her a trophy, she would be delighted because the trophy was pretty; if there was no prize at the end of this, she probably wouldn’t understand why everyone was disappointed. Her lack of interest in social rituals caused some friction with Joy at times, but she also seemed to possess a hyper-awareness for what really mattered to her family. While they were preparing for the Slayer Games, she had asked some very pointed questions about Joy’s future, and thinking of them still made Angel feel at a loss.
Joy had a wide range of options. Regardless of her performance this week, her standing as a junior Slayer was still good enough to get her into the Hero Corps, which had quite a few benefits but also came with more danger than Angel liked. She could continue as an athlete, competing professionally and eventually training younger Slayers. She could go to college, putting Slaying on the sideline or giving it up altogether. Angel wasn’t sure yet which way she was leaning, and he didn’t know what he should hope for.
The seats in the stadium were filling up, and Angel checked his watch. The opening ceremony would begin in a few minutes, and then the Slayer Games would kick off with the archery competition. It wasn’t Joy’s best discipline, but she was still likely to place at least third.
As it happened, she came in first. When she stepped onto the platform in the middle of the arena to accept the golden arrow of victory, Buffy screamed her lungs out. Angel stood up and raised his fists over his head, and Katie clapped so vigorously that she blinked with surprise at how red her palms became. Joy held the arrow high, smiling broadly, surrounded by deafening applause.
There was a few hours’ break before Joy’s next event, and she met them just outside the training facility adjacent to the arena, where she had changed her clothing and signed out for the afternoon. Katie ran to her first and got a spinning hug, while Buffy and Angel approached more slowly and let her see their pride rather than forcing it on her. She greeted them each with a dignified embrace and the proclamation, “I’m starving. We’re having lunch wherever I want, right? Hero of the hour and all that?”
“You made a decent start,” Buffy smiled, “I’ll give you that. But I hope you’re gonna pick a place with a patio, because this is way too nice of a day.”
“Did you see the trees?” Katie asked earnestly. She held up her leaf. “They all look like this.”
“Uh-huh,” sighed Joy in mock despair. “I totally just proved myself the best archer in the world, and all my sister can talk about is the plant life.”
“But we’re only in Boston for a week,” Katie protested. “They’re not as pretty at home, and plus when we get back there, they might all be gone from the trees already. You can’t miss them just because you’re winning games.”
“Excellent point.” Joy wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders and started walking with her toward the car. “Hey, tomorrow let’s get a bunch of these, and I’ll make you a leaf crown.”
The restaurant she picked was a local steakhouse, which pleased everyone. Angel had always been secretly fascinated by how much Slayers could eat, especially after he started cooking for two of them. Joy dominated the conversation, gossiping about her friends and rivals in the Games between quick bites of sirloin, but eventually Angel found an opening to ask her about her fears over being singled out for her family connections.
She made an irritated sound in her throat. “Ms. Kennedy kind of pulled me aside and told me if anyone tried to give me any trouble about it I should come find her and tell her and she’d deal with it.” She dug her fork into her baked potato. “Like that’s gonna help.”
“Well, Ms. Kennedy’s the end of the line when it comes to authority in the Slayer Games,” Buffy reasoned. “She didn’t get that obnoxious know-it-all attitude from nowhere.”
“Yeah, exactly. So if she speaks up for me it just makes everyone extra sure that I’m getting special attention.”
The four of them ruminated silently for a moment, and then Angel ventured, “Well, at least the judges have been fair so far. That was some perfect shooting.”
Buffy chimed in, “And if they decide to dock you a few points in another area just to cover their butts, you can still win. The champion is calculated by whoever gets the most overall points, not by who tops the most events. There’s a math thing.”
“Yeah,” said Joy, not sounding convinced. “It’s just...Mom, you were the best Slayer of all time. If I take home the trophy, I’m still just the best Slayer of the year. I’m not trying to win. I want to break records. I think I could do it if they just let me.”
Angel and Buffy automatically found themselves staring at each other. He knew what she was thinking - how do we even begin to talk to her about this? Fortunately, Katie saved them from needing to address it immediately, by asking Joy about what the current records were and what she needed to do to top them. As the girls chattered, Angel reached across the table for Buffy’s hand. Her face was creased with worry, carefully avoiding eye contact with her oldest daughter. This was so hard for her.
When they brought Joy back to the training headquarters so she could prepare for the next trial, Angel gave her the usual words of encouragement and confidence and promised they’d talk to her again before they returned to their respective hotels for the night. Buffy, however, put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder, looked her in the eye, and said, “Joy, I wasn’t the best Slayer of all time. I just survived the longest. Saved the world, but we don’t even know what some Slayers had to go through before our time. They just lived, and sacrificed everything, and nobody remembered.”
Joy looked perturbed. “Well, the world isn’t like that anymore. We’re all surviving at once. This is the way we prove ourselves.”
“You don’t have to...” Buffy sighed, then recovered with a slightly forced smile. “Just remember you broke all the records in our hearts.”
“Okay, Mom,” Joy laughed. “See you tonight.”
After she had disappeared into the building, Buffy and Angel looked at each other for a long moment, shook their heads, and turned to Katie. Angel experienced a brief moment of sheer panic when she wasn’t instantly visible, but Buffy said, “Looks like someone went to find another leaf.” She raised her voice. “Katie!”
Katie answered from above them. She hadn’t found a leaf; she had found a whole tree. “Is Aunt Dawn and everyone here yet?” she asked as she dropped gracefully down from a thick branch, through a veil of vibrant foliage.
A few text messages later, they met Dawn and Xander in the parking lot, holding the hands of their little boy who walked between them. They wanted to find seats right away and Katie wanted to go with them, so Buffy and Angel soon found themselves standing alone outside, wondering what to do until Joy was in the arena again.
“We could go see Kennedy,” Buffy suggested.
Angel gave her a skeptical look. “I thought we agreed to just be doting parent spectators this time. No behind-the-scenes interference.”
“Well, sure, but we could still just go say hi. That’s more of a spectate than an interfere.”
“Buffy, you have never once since the day you met her wanted to see Kennedy just to say hi. Goes without saying that neither have I.”
She gave a drawn-out sigh of defeat. “Fine, I want to talk to her about Joy. But I won’t make trouble. I just...” She shook her head. “I can’t just let this be. Even if I can’t do anything about it, I have to prove I can’t do anything about it.”
“If Joy finds out...”
“Hey, she can’t fuss over who we say hi to.”
“Alright.” He took her hand. “Can I at least come along?”
Buffy laughed. “Are you kidding? Nobody should ever leave me and Kennedy alone in a room together. You’re coming.”
Kennedy’s temporary office for the event was in a building a short walk from the one where Joy was training. They were stopped in the lobby by a security guard, who politely told them that the direction they were headed was for authorized personnel. Angel smiled, relieved, as he always was, that he and Buffy had managed to keep their fame attached to their names rather than their faces. They could still move around freely without being recognized by most people outside the supernatural field, even though stories about their lives were still commonplace in the media. Just the day before, Angel had read an article about a warlock criminal on the run, suspected of summoning creatures from hell dimensions and setting them loose. It had mentioned Angel twice and Buffy once, though neither of them had anything to do with the case.
“We know,” said Buffy, her voice friendly and respectful. “We’re here on official business. We’re Buffy and Angel?”
The guard hesitated, clearly wondering if he was being pranked. Angel took out his photo ID, and Buffy shrugged and went into her purse to get her own.
“Pardon me,” said the man when he saw them, flustered. “I thought...pardon me. Go right ahead.”
“Just doing your job,” Buffy assured him, still affable but growing impatient with the delay. “Thanks!” she added as they walked on down the corridor. “Enjoy the Games! Root for Joy!”
A harried young assistant was just leaving Kennedy’s office as they entered. They heard the Senior Slayer’s voice before they saw her, giving instructions about numbers to call and arrangements to make, and then as the young man agreed and went trotting down the hall, she turned to Buffy and Angel and raised an eyebrow. “Came to say hi?”
“Yeah,” said Buffy, and Angel winced: the word had the edge of a challenge in it. It was probably unintentional, but Buffy couldn’t always control her fighter spirit, and Kennedy was likely to pick right up on it.
“Have a seat, but don’t take too long,” said Kennedy, waving them at chairs. “This is kinda the middle of my workday.” Indeed, she was shuffling pages around a cluttered desk, hardly sparing her visitors a glance as she sorted stacks and jotted notes.
Buffy took a deep breath. “So, Joy’s doing great so far.”
“She’s a star,” Kennedy agreed absently.
“She’s a little worried...”
“About girls being girls? Yeah, she told me. Don’t sweat. We’ve got rules about bullying. Everyone knows they could get disqualified for spreading rumors.”
Irritation flashed across Buffy’s features. “It’s not that simple.”
Kennedy finally looked up. “Yeah, genius, it’s not. Fifty girls from normal human families, one from the womb of the almighty Buffy Summers. Find a way to take yourself out of the equation, and then we’ll talk about how it feels for the rest of them to be competing against Joy.”
Angel stayed quiet and let the two women argue, but their anger had escalated even faster than he had expected. He held himself ready to drag Buffy from the office if necessary.
“Screw the competition!” said Buffy, not quite in a yell. “I’m trying to teach her about what’s important, and she’s talking to me about breaking records and taking home trophies! Like she’s a basketball player or something. Like all those other girls are just her opponents.”
Kennedy’s voice raised along with Buffy’s. “So don’t let her enter the Games! Or is that too much active parenting for you?”
“Don’t you dare take that line with me. You know damn well I’m not just speaking as a parent. I have a responsibility for these girls, and I’m not going to sit and watch while you funnel them through this ritual that has nothing to do with being a Slayer! God, Kennedy, you were there with me at the beginning, you know this.”
“I do.” The younger woman’s gaze hardened. Angel hadn’t known her as the bratty teenager that Willow had dated in Sunnydale, but Buffy said she had changed since then. Her own life experiences had granted her the maturity and competence that led her to this position. According to Buffy, though, one thing Kennedy had kept was her feelings about getting her way. “I know what it was like,” she said now. “You showed us the ropes by locking us in a crypt with a vampire. Everything was life and death from the moment we stepped into your house. Is that what you want for your daughter? Slay hard rest never?”
“What I want is for these girls to be happy with who they are. They’re the strongest kind of person on Earth. So they don’t need to face death every day like we did; doesn’t mean they need these pointless tests to decide which one of them is best at being strong.”
“Chrissakes,” Kennedy exhaled. “Ever stop to think that maybe there’s more to this than self-esteem? Yeah, they’re the strongest people on Earth. You know how everyone else feels about that? Pretty goddamn scared. People see squads of superheroes being trained to fight, they gear up for an inevitable attack on their homeland. They see teams of teenagers playing sports, they pick up their peanuts and crackerjacks and leave us alone.” She shot Buffy a glare. “And hey, remember how you were there with me at the beginning of this? You were in on the decisions back then. You agreed the Games were necessary.”
“Are you trying to tell me I’m not in on the decisions now?” Buffy asked coolly, squashing Angel’s hopes that she wouldn’t zero in on that particular sentence. “I’ll be the Slayer until the day I die. And it has never, ever been a game.”
That provoked a reaction. “Drop it, Buffy! You can’t play the Chosen One card anymore! The world changed, you got knocked up, you handed over the hard choices to me. I’m dealing with crap like this day and night because you decided to go native. Get over yourself.”
Buffy’s eyes were blazing, her hands tight around the arms of her chair, but her voice was controlled. “Thousands of ordinary girls were turned into warriors because of what Willow and I did. Whatever else changes, I’m never getting over that. And if I don’t like what you’re doing with my children - all of my children - you’ll hear about it until something changes.”
Angel decided it was time to intervene. Before Kennedy could reply, he offered, “Maybe we could revise the award system, show the girls that they can work together instead of competing.”
“Oh I’m sorry, are you a Slayer now too?” Kennedy snapped at him, feigning surprise.
That swiftly ended Angel’s attempt at a compromise. “I am Joy’s father!” he all but roared. “I have every right to be concerned!”
After one full second of complete silence, everyone drawing a breath for their next complaint, the phone on Kennedy’s desk rang. To Angel it seemed unnaturally loud, as if he still had a vampire’s sensitive eardrums, but both women flinched at it too. Kennedy snatched it up before the second ring and barked, “Central Office.”
Buffy and Angel rose simultaneously from their chairs as Kennedy exchanged a few terse words with whoever was on the other end of her conversation. By the time she hung up, they were a step away from the door. “We won’t keep you anymore,” said Buffy in a surprisingly apologetic tone. “We’ve got to get seats.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Kennedy replied, grabbing a suit jacket from the back of her chair and throwing it on as she crossed the room. “The girls are gonna be headed to the outer arena by now. I need to check in with the coordinators.”
They stepped aside to let her leave the room first, and Buffy saved her scowl until they were safely behind her, making Angel grin and hug her shoulders. He knew she would rather begin dissecting the argument immediately, but if Kennedy was going to stick around being obstinately civil, so would she. The three of them walked in silence through the building and across the manicured courtyard, and then indoors again and up the stairs to the arena’s upper level. As soon as they were up there, Angel’s phone chimed and he opened it to read a text from Dawn: Find Xander and Katie at the snack bar, they can show you where we’re sitting. He sighed, mapping out the arena in his head: they had been heading toward the top level spectator entrance, and were now almost directly above the snack bar. A few minutes’ advance on Dawn’s text could have saved them a lot of stairs.
Before he and Buffy parted ways with Kennedy in the empty corridor, she turned to them and said, “You know, Willow thought--”
An enormous rumble rocked the floor beneath them, accompanied by a hellish wail that Angel instantly identified as demonic. Buffy and Kennedy bulled through the nearest door, undoubtedly seeking a visual, but Angel found himself unable to even wonder what kind of monster it was. It was coming from below, and he knew one thing that Buffy didn’t: Katie was beneath them, too.
He didn’t know the layout of the building enough to find a shorter route. He went tearing back the way they had come, leaping down as many stairs at a time as he could without breaking his ankles, breath coming in short, terrified gasps. The walls shook around him, and the next monstrous scream was significantly closer, but he couldn’t see anything but the stairwell that surrounded him, and that alone was making him lose his mind. Katie was defenseless, she had only her non-combatant uncle Xander near her, she could be caught by the beast already. Buffy and Kennedy would go for weapons before they attacked. Only Angel had a chance to get there in time.
And what chance is that? he realized suddenly, without slowing his pace. He wasn’t a Champion anymore; he wasn’t even armed. What made him think he could defend Katie any more than Xander could? He should have told Buffy before he ran. He might have already doomed his daughter. Shame swallowed his heart as he finally stumbled to the base of the stairs. An old memory ambushed him: Joy was holding her little sister for the first time, cradling the newborn with excessive caution, and she turned to him and asked, all earnestness, if Katie would like to climb trees when she was older...
Yes, thought Angel mindlessly, barreling through the door. Yes, Joy, yes, she likes to climb trees, she likes leaves, and autumn, my baby Kathleen, oh God oh God oh God...
He came out between two seating sections, just around the arena’s curve from the snack bar. The creature was in the arena itself; there was a wide walkway and a fence between it and himself, but no crowd - screams were coming from all around and above him, but everyone who had been near the rail had managed to flee to the higher seats. Angel’s quick look at the demon showed him that it was rat-like, but bloated and hairless, and bigger than an elephant. It was attempting to climb over the railing now, and it was already close to the snack bar. There were only a few people there, trapped by the structure’s collapse, and among them, yes, a man and a young girl. Angel started running again, still too far, still too late, still too helpless.
The rat-demon’s hoof-paw crashed through the fence. Xander pushed Katie behind himself. Angel reached for the nearest weapon, a broken plastic chair. And then, as if by magic, the demon halted. It moaned. It turned away from the railing, back into the arena, and as it did, Angel could see that its hip had a blade sticking out from a bleeding wound.
He whirled to see where the weapon had been thrown from. A solitary figure was in the ring, sword in hand, dashing toward the monster even as it lumbered toward her. “Get away from them!” Joy shouted.
The battle was fierce, but the outcome clear almost immediately. Joy moved like a whirlwind, finding her enemy’s weaknesses and employing her own natural skill just as she always had in training. The beast was limping already, black fluid oozing from its ash-blue skin, and the Slayer was striking to kill.
Angel fought the impulse to climb the fence and fight beside her. It would take him too long, and he wasn’t likely to be of much help there. Instead, he tore his eyes away from his elder daughter and sought out the younger one. The people at the snack bar were stuck behind a fallen wall, no longer visible to him. He called out for Katie, and her answering scream of ”Dad!” was followed quickly by Xander’s voice, “We’re okay, Angel!”
He and Xander between them managed to shift the wall enough for everyone to squeeze through and escape. Katie was the last one before Xander, and Angel caught her as she leaped at him and threw her arms around his neck. “Joy, Daddy, Joy,” she sobbed
“Joy’s gonna be fine,” he assured her, marvelling at how confident he made himself sound. “Where’s Buffy?” he asked Xander, who shook his head regretfully.
“Couldn’t see anything.”
“Dawn and the baby?”
“They were sitting up high,” said Xander, pointing. “They’ll be fine.”
“I need to get into the arena,” Angel stated, trying not to let his determination waver when he felt Katie’s arms and legs tighten around him in fear. He didn’t want to let go of her, but he couldn’t leave Joy to fight this battle herself.
Xander grabbed Angel’s shoulder, drawing his attention to the arena. “No, you don’t.”
The rat-demon’s bellows were getting weaker and interspersed with hacking noises. From his vantage point, Angel could see neither Joy, nor the creature’s head, but from the sudden spasm that ran through its body, he knew that she had just struck a vital blow. Within seconds, its great bulk had thundered to the ground, and Joy reappeared, stepping tentatively around her fallen foe. The katana in her hand was blackened to the hilt, and she dropped it carelessly to clutch a wound at her side.
At least four voices called out her name in a chorus, but the first one to get to her was Buffy, who came from the direction of the seats and made it over the fence in a heartbeat. Angel watched his Slayers embrace, a prayer of gratitude swimming through his heart. Buffy was crying, but smiling. Joy’s wound was superficial, then. Nobody would die today.
“...So I told Ellie and Blair to go after him while I took care of the rat,” Joy explained from her cot in the infirmary, ignoring the nurse who was putting the finishing touches on the layer of bandages on her side. “Do you know if they got him? I saw they were just walking by with Ms. Kennedy, but I don’t think I’m allowed to go talk to anyone yet, right?”
“They got him,” Buffy confirmed. “Kennedy caught up with them as soon as we were downstairs, and they cornered him. She said he was about to summon another one, too. What kind of idiot thinks this is a good place to pull that kind of stunt and get away with it?”
“All the other demons he summoned were in public crowds too,” Angel reasoned. He had been initially surprised to hear that there was another fight happening while Joy killed the rat, but it all made sense now. Well, except for the warlock’s motivations, but he expected those would come out in the long and dramatic trial that was bound to follow. “He probably expected the mayhem would cover his escape. I’m sure he didn’t intend for the demon to survive, just to kill a few innocents before it went down.”
The nurse instructed Joy to hold her arm out, and she obeyed without looking. “I just wish he could have waited until the tournament was over,” she griped. “Now they’re just gonna cancel it. Or disqualify me for being injured or something stupid like that.”
Buffy groaned theatrically, leaned back in her folding chair, and pulled Katie onto her lap. “Listen, Katie-cat, try not to develop any superpowers when you get older, okay?”
“I want to be a detective and a naturalist!” Katie replied.
Angel laughed. “Sounds good. I’ll be your sidekick.”
“If that’s the plan,” said Buffy, “my job is going to be getting everyone’s coffee and taking a lot of hot tub breaks. And occasionally telling you that you’re doing everything all wrong.”
“I’m joining the Hero Corps,” Joy said quietly.
Buffy’s hand instantly reached out to where Angel was standing beside her chair and latched onto his elbow. The nurse had left them alone for the moment, so there were only the four of them in a family stare-down. He squeezed Buffy’s shoulder, but kept his eyes leveled at Joy. “You don’t have to decide now, you know.”
“Well, I am.” She stuck out her chin. “You saw me out there. I did something that matters. I want to do it again.”
“Chosen One,” Buffy muttered, so low that Angel almost missed it.
He rubbed his eyes, trying to clear them of his visions of Buffy, no older than Joy was now, outside every night risking her life to save the world. He had been so proud, and so afraid, from the day he met her right up to the day that she said she was giving up slaying. Now it was about to start all over again. “Anything you choose to do with your life will matter,” he said to Joy, knowing it was hopeless to try to change her mind.
“Yeah, but enrolling at a four-year college isn’t exactly going to save my little sister from being eaten by a giant hippo rodent, is it?” she responded dryly. “Look, I know you guys are all ‘safety first’ about my future and everything, but there’s jobs in the world that need doing and I think it’s pretty obvious now that I’m good at doing them. Dad, you helped me become this, now just...” She gestured in frustration. “...Let me be this.”
Angel sighed, trying to keep himself from talking about how amazed he still was by her. She always wanted to credit him with training her, even though Buffy and the Slayer Academy had done as much or more than he had, and she herself had been such a natural that she barely needed to credit anyone. He thought she just liked being the daughter of a legendary vampire, and he wanted to cure her of that. “I didn’t help you today,” he said.
“Sure you did. We were lined up at the gate alphabetically, you know. I got out first because my last name starts with A.”
Buffy chuckled hoarsely and slid Katie off of her lap so she could stand. “We’ve got to go see how Auntie Dawn and Uncle Xander are doing,” she said. “They might need some help chasing reporters away.”
“Okay,” Joy agreed. “Can Katie stay here?” She then swiveled and raised her voice to repeat, “Can my sister stay in here?”
The nurse returned with a rather fixed smile on her face, but she was nodding and holding popsicles. Angel and Buffy left their children sitting together and slurping contentedly.
As Angel had expected, Buffy didn’t really want to go straight to see Dawn’s family. She pulled him into an adjacent room, an empty office, and closed the door behind them. “Alright, I know we’re all alive and the beast is dead and Joy’s a hero and Katie’s safe, but.” She took a deep breath, pressed her forehead against his chest, and said emphatically, “This has been a really bad day.”
He hugged her to himself. “It was going to happen sooner or later. We did all we could to prepare her.”
“She’s going to spend her life fighting!” Buffy cried. “God, Angel!”
“I know. I know.”
“I should have never - the amulet, you gave me the amulet - we could have been at a gymnastics competition. A piano recital.”
It took him a moment to piece together what she was talking about, but not too long. The subject still came up every few years, and she always felt the same way about it. “Buffy,” he said gently. “It’s not your fault that Joy is a Slayer.”
“It is,” she said to his shirt.
“If it is, it’s your fault that that demon died before it hurt Katie, too. Look, Joy has something that she can use to help people. It’s the most precious thing in the world for her. All these years we’ve been telling ourselves that she doesn’t have to sacrifice herself for the greater good, but that was never the point. She has to grow up. She’s going to do it her own way.”
“Like I did,” said Buffy dully. “Suddenly I wish I’d told her more of the doom-and-destruction stories.”
He stroked her hair, needing the comfort of her body as much as she needed his. “Everything Kennedy said about the Games being necessary...”
“And you and me, all going off about what it means to be a Slayer...”
“And in the end, the only one who really had it right was Katie.” Angel rested his head against hers, speaking softly. “Whatever we do, the leaves are still going to fall. We just have to enjoy them while they’re here.”