Setting: Post-Shanshu distant future. I reused some elements from my story Ten Observations, because I do whut I WONT.
Warnings: Not recommended for diabetics or anyone with a sugar intolerance. I may have told you that some other stories I wrote were fluffy; you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Dedication: Written for fluffernutter8, for this meme. Betcha thought I forgot! The prompt was "queen of diamonds", which also doubled handily as a title. Also, this is a pretty Fluff-centric story, as I sort of took a page from her book and wrote about the characters as they might be in a family situation someday, given some happy unseen turn of events.
Aaand, extended dedication time! Thank you to leni_ba and ares132006 for the beta'ing, and to everyone who replies to my non-B/A stories by asking me to write something B/A. :)
The best thing about weddings was the cheese.
Well, maybe that wasn’t entirely fair. If put to the question, Buffy would have said that the best thing about weddings was the union of two hearts and the celebration surrounding it, and she wouldn’t have even had to cross her fingers. But from her current perspective of a guest whose acquaintance with the bride was limited—-and with the groom, nonexistent—-the finger food definitely counted for something.
Since the reception didn’t have assigned seating and Angel had been hooked into a string of greetings and introductions almost as soon as they’d left the church, Buffy took the liberty of selecting a table for them herself. Katie, balanced on her hip, stretched out a hand and pointed at the fancy centerpiece at the one nearest them, the latest confection to astound her young mind that day. “You’re right,” said Buffy, sitting them down in front of the centerpiece, which was on closer inspection a three-tiered dish of appetizers. “This one does have the most cheese.”
The others already at the table were all women, all older than her, and all strangers, unless she was forgetting someone from another Reilly family function. They all offered her their names, though, smiled and cooed at Katie, and reacted only marginally when she introduced herself as Buffy. Usually she could count on a few raised eyebrows, people wondering if she was that Buffy but unwilling to ask outright. This time, they had probably known in advance that she would be attending, so the invasive questions about her career were skipped and the conversation moved right into the standard smalltalk.
“Is she your first one?” asked the grandmotherly woman across from her, and Buffy knew she had picked the right table. It was hard to point Joy out among the small swarm of hyperactive children chasing each other through the gardens, but it was easy to talk about her and Katie. Buffy had spent hours sharing stories of them with audiences much less receptive than this one.
Time passed quickly, and the cheese on the tray gradually began to disappear, followed by a plate that Angel filled from the buffet table and dropped off for her and Katie. She was definitely going to need to burn some calories after this—-one of her less pleasant discoveries about aging as a Slayer was the way her exercise and dietary habits started to matter. Her strength remained constant, but her physique didn’t seem to know it; evidently, cutting back on world-saving had consequences for the figure that two pregnancies had left her. She wasn’t sure where her newfound enjoyment of smalltalk with old ladies fit in, but it seemed to go hand in hand with losing muscle tone.
“Mom!” Joy had appeared suddenly and was plucking at her sleeve, as if her voice alone wasn’t enough to get the attention she wanted. “Is this a broadsword or a longsword?”
Buffy examined the sword in Joy’s hands. It was a length of PVC pipe wrapped in foam and duct tape, but literalism was unlikely to be welcomed at the moment. “Do you use it with one hand or two?”
“Two,” said Joy, striking a pose to show her. Katie clapped her hands together, and the ladies at the table all looked a little taken aback. Buffy could imagine that they had yet to get used to girls with toy weapons.
“Good call. Looks heavy. I’d call that a broadsword.”
Joy was triumphant. “I told him!” She started scanning the area, presumably to find the ring bearer that she had been playing with earlier, and Buffy sensed a sudden departure coming on.
“Hey, warrior princess,” she said. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Find Daddy and ask him who’s the prettiest lady here.”
Joy rolled her eyes, bouncing her sword from hand to hand. “Mo-o-om. He always just says it’s you.”
Buffy smothered a giggle. “Just check and make sure?”
With the classic exasperated sigh of the impatient child, Joy was off at a run. She did everything at a run, it seemed, full of boundless energy that routinely tested her mother’s super strength. Angel might get the message, or he might not. It didn’t really matter, but Buffy couldn’t help taking these opportunities to revive their ongoing game. Joy was still too young to understand why her parents were always asking each other such stupid questions, and that was exactly what made it so much fun to involve her. Sooner or later she would learn about flirtation and refuse to participate.
Before she had left the cover of the pavilion, Joy found who she was looking for, and it wasn’t the ring bearer, it was the best man. “My mom says it’s a broadsword!” she yelled. “I’m Joy the Vampire Slayer and I’m gonna smite you!”
Buffy was about to raise her voice to tell her daughter to calm down, but the tall man in his suit didn’t miss a beat, just snatched up another toy sword from under the table and crouched right on time to block a swing from Joy’s. “Oh yeah?” he countered. “I’m Connor the Destroyer, and I’m not scared of you!”
Relieved to see Joy’s exuberance finding an outlet, Buffy settled back in her chair to watch. It would be a few years before she deemed Joy old enough to know how she and Connor were related, but Connor knew, and his affection for his ‘other little sisters’ was evident every time they saw each other. He had probably been the one who asked to have the Angel family invited to the wedding of his ‘original little sister’, but Rachel, despite her belief that Angel was simply a professor who had helped Connor out at Stanford, liked them too. She was even willing to cross swords with Joy, when she wasn’t busy being a newlywed, and Buffy always felt warmly toward someone who could put up with the intensity of her firstborn.
“Warrior princess” was an apt nickname. Joy loved to play Slayer, constantly initiating make-believe battles and always proclaiming herself the hero of the scene, but she also loved gaudy jewelry and glitter-coated toys. She was instantly drawn to anything that sparkled: her wardrobe contained more than its fair share of sequins, and even the foam sword she wielded now had a plastic ruby at its pommel. So far she had no concept of the monetary value of gems, but that didn’t affect her fascination with her mother’s engagement ring, which she often asked to see held up so that the light would shine through the diamond’s facets.
Having grown up among Slayers and witches, she had never been taught that there was any inconsistency between being a beautiful lady and being a champion—-in fact, she was probably under the impression that the word ‘princess’ implied active heroism, which Buffy was in no great hurry to correct. She couldn’t really expect anything else from the daughter of the woman who had fought the Master in a prom dress.
There had been some discord that morning, though, when they were getting dressed for the wedding, since Joy thought it was the perfect occasion for draping herself in white lace and crystal, and whined when Buffy picked out a much less dramatic pink dress for her. Before leaving the house, they’d needed to have a talk about the meaning of weddings, and how the bride was the star and nobody else was supposed to outshine her on her special day.
It seemed to have clicked, for Joy behaved herself from that point on, but once they were in the car she suddenly asked, “How can Rachel be the star when Mom is prettier?”
Buffy tried to stay composed, but Angel’s immediate roar of laughter prevented it. She released a stream of giggles herself before answering. “It’s not about who’s prettier. Rachel’s celebrating something very important, and she deserves to be the center of attention.”
“When are you the center of attention?” Joy wanted to know. She wasn’t an arrogant child, but she had developed a streak of elitism regarding her family. She couldn’t be dissuaded from the belief that her mother surpassed all other human beings in every category, and that any alternative perception was fundamentally flawed. Buffy blamed Angel.
It was Angel who answered Joy’s question this time. “Mommy got her special day before you were born,” he said. “When we get home we can look at the pictures.” He quickly met Joy’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial stage-whisper. “She looked like a real princess.”
“Mommy has had more than her fair share of princess days,” said Buffy, wondering what it was about parenthood that induced a tendency to talk about oneself in the third person. She turned to smile at Joy—-and Katie, who was listening wide-eyed from her carseat. “And now I have my own little princesses instead. And my king.”
“King?” Angel shot her a devious grin. “Ooh, I like that one.”
The thought of her husband as any traditional kind of monarch made Buffy laugh and roll her eyes, and then made her wonder why that was her first reaction. After all, wasn’t this the one-time uncrowned king of vampires? Hadn’t he claimed a vast seat of power as Wolfram & Hart’s CEO? Didn’t she know, for a fact, that at some stages in his life he had been called ‘Master’ on a regular basis?
Yet when she looked at him as he was during that moment, driving a decidedly boring car through the daylight with two little girls in his backseat, she could see none of that. The power he had lost in his redemptive transformation was well and truly gone, along with his desire for it.
Buffy brought her mind back to the present. Joy was happily occupied playing with Connor—-bless that man’s heart—-but Katie was starting to get squirmy on her lap, and she wanted a bathroom break, herself. She was eyeing the other women at the table, trying to decide which one would be the best candidate for five minutes of babysitting, when Angel came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder.
“There are some vampire hunters here who have questions about the history of Aurelius. I’ll be right over in the other pavilion.”
Katie answered before Buffy did, squealing, “Daddy! Up!” and attempting to stand on her mother’s lap to reach him. To the great relief of Buffy’s bladder, Angel immediately scooped her up, twirled her around, and lifted her onto his shoulders as she squealed with delight.
Buffy didn’t let them go just yet. “Are you sure you want to take her to a conversation about Aurelius?”
He nodded, Katie bobbing along with the movement. “They’re just looking for dates and names. I think this is someone’s secret plan to bore me to death. I need some company.” His eyes rolled up to look at his passenger. “Right Katie?” They went off at a leisurely amble, and Buffy excused herself from the table.
The bathrooms were indoors, just past the kitchen, and Buffy lingered there for a while, examining her reflection. The color in her hair had dulled somewhat, and she couldn’t keep up with tinting it. Her makeup was minimal, too; just enough to disguise the lines that were beginning to intrude on her face. The occasion merited fancy jewelry, so she had worn her diamond necklace and earrings, but the grabby toddler who had spent half the day in her lap was already making her feel like they were more trouble than they were worth. A girl’s best friend wasn’t quite the same on the body of a mature woman. Was it her imagination, or were her breasts getting saggier?
But it was as she had told Joy: it wasn’t her time to shine. Most Slayers preceding her had died when they still had their youth and beauty. Living long enough to lose hers was a gift.
When the crowd began to thin out, Buffy realized suddenly that the reception was ending and she had spent most of it without her husband. She felt vaguely annoyed as she got up to seek him out. After all these years they were finally at a point where he would dance if she asked him to, and now they had missed a whole lineup of good opportunities for it. She needed to get better at keeping time; it was way past bedtime for the girls.
She spied Angel from the back, Katie’s pale little legs hanging down on each side of his waist. He was still in the other pavilion, still talking to two men and a woman whom Buffy easily identified as a Slayer. She tried to remember how long it had been since he headed this way and shook her head in dismay. Human or not, it seemed he would have vampire hunters after him all his life.
Angel was not happy. To Buffy it was obvious, even from behind—-she could see the hard set to his shoulders and hear the disdain in his voice—-but she had little difficulty in reading him these days. She felt that he was far more expressive as a human than he had been as a vampire, as if he were compensating for the ability to call up his demon face at will, and it sometimes surprised her that not everyone seemed to notice.
At the moment, though, she suspected that the others did notice, and were deliberately ignoring his chilly manner. His words were still civil, if terse, and they were taking every advantage of his reluctant participation in their talk. As soon as he answered a question from one of them, another would comment on it and then release an anecdote or a fact, which another would build on, and then they would be ready with another question for Angel. Buffy’s annoyance about the late hour transferred itself from him to his antagonists. He was clearly in need of a rescue.
Without bothering to introduce herself, she sidled up to Angel and kissed him on the cheek, then turned her attention to Katie, who had her eyes closed but was shifting restlessly against Angel’s chest. He was swaying slightly at the hips, trying to rock her into greater comfort, but there wasn’t much more he could do without having her bed handy. “You want me to take her?” Buffy asked, loudly enough for the others to hear. They had politely stopped talking when she approached, but she was still intent on forcing them to notice that they were not Angel’s top priority.
“No, I think she’s almost asleep,” he replied with a similar lack of regard for the onlookers.
“Alright. You almost ready to go?” Buffy asked, as if she didn’t know. “It’s late o’clock and Joy has school tomorrow.”
The older of the two male vampire hunters cleared his throat obsequiously and raised his eyebrows at Angel. “If I may—-there was one more thing—-it’s true you’ve been to a hell dimension?”
“Could you possibly tell us anything about the portals you used? The information available right now is almost useless.”
The Slayer spoke up before Angel could answer, seemingly in response to the way the question had made his eyes narrow. “We’re sorry to have to bother you like this,” she said smoothly. “It must be so hard for you to talk about these things.”
“Can’t imagine,” said the younger man. “I’m sure they don’t call them hell dimensions for nothing. You’re probably, heh, you’re probably not liking us too much right now.”
Buffy decided that their grace period was over. “And you’re probably not unfamiliar with that feeling,” she threw in with a sarcastic smile.
She expected that comment to ignite Angel’s old-fashioned sense of decorum, but instead of trying to cover or apologize for her, he kept the stony look in his eyes and addressed the hunter who had first asked about the hell dimension: he still had a knack for picking out the leader of any group. “There’s no information on opening portals because doing it is dangerous and stupid. If there are lives at stake, contact the Coven. If there aren’t, there’s no point in researching it.”
It was much easier to extract him from the conversation after that.
After Buffy ascertained that they were out of earshot she said, “You know, you can always just tell them you’re retired.”
Angel scowled. “They know I’m retired. They don’t care.”
“Well, tell them you’re busy. I mean, you were busy. You were busy being a wedding guest.” She shouldered her purse and they started back to the table in the other pavilion.
“Apparently they don’t care about that either.” He sighed as Katie fidgeted and moaned in his arms, and said to her in a soothing murmur, “Don’t worry, baby, we’re going home,” before continuing in his normal voice. “I didn’t get a chance to ask Connor who invited them, but if I find out they only showed up here to pick my brain on vampire lore...”
“Way beyond evil. In that scenario, I vote Joy smites them.”
He chuckled at that, but then stopped walking and turned to face her before the three of them were back in the company of anyone else. “Buffy, I know you’d rather I just refuse to talk business anymore, but...I can’t. They’re still our people. And if I’m not out there fighting, this is all I can contribute.”
“I know.” She shivered slightly; the night was warm, but they had been outside too long, and she was glad that Katie was snug against her father’s body heat. “Hey, I’m done trying to jam the gears of the Angel guilt machine. If doing the Yoda thing is what it takes to keep you from picking up a sword again, fair’s fair. It’s not you I’m mad at.”
“You wish she wasn’t a Slayer?”
Buffy opened her mouth and then closed it again. She hadn’t quite reached that thought, but now she had to admit that yes, being annoyed by a Slayer was worse than being annoyed by an ordinary warrior. It induced the uncomfortable feeling that the girl should have been schooled better, and that the original Slayer matriarch should have been the one in charge of it. Angel wasn’t the only one who couldn’t fully relax into retirement.
The words he had used were resonating now in her brain: They’re still our people. Buffy had always found it easy to define her people; they were her family, the once-upon-a-time Scoobies, and all Slayers for all time. Angel had no such parameters. His people were whoever he wanted them to be, and he was all too willing to accept anyone who picked up his battle where he had left off. Their behavior might frustrate him, but it never gave him the whispered sense of betrayal that Buffy struggled with whenever one of her successors didn’t have the attitude she expected from them. The man should be teaching classes in forgiveness. This incident was far too minor for her to get worked up over it.
Still, it grated. That girl had some nerve to suggest that Angel had emotional difficulties talking about Hell, when it was clear as day that his anger stemmed from being held there when his daughter needed to be put to bed.
“Was I like that when I was her age?” she asked, and then laughed sheepishly before he could answer. “Darn kids these days. When I was a Slayer we used to kill fifty demons a day without complaining. And the stakes were blunt at both ends.”
Angel’s initial response was a warm, prolonged smile, his dark eyes twinkling with the light of the lamps adorning the garden, and then he shifted Katie’s weight into one of his arms and folded the other one around Buffy’s shoulders. She returned the embrace with Katie sandwiched in the middle of it, and for a few restful seconds they leaned into each other and forgot about pushy vampire hunters.
“It’s you,” Angel murmured into her ear before he let go of her.
He ran his hand through her hair and kissed her forehead, like he used to do when she was young. “Joy asked me a question a couple hours ago. The answer is you.”
She had to think before the relevant memory clicked. “Oh,” she said finally as she put her hand in his and they began walking again. “Even though I’m all old and cantankerous?”
“I like you old and cantankerous.”
“My boobs are getting saggier.”
“I like your boobs saggy.”
“I can’t believe you just said that in front of our tiny impressionable daughter.”
“She’s asleep. And you started it.”
They found Joy sitting on the grass with the ring bearer. He was a few years younger than her and she clearly enjoyed the way he treated her as his sage and idol, but Buffy was just glad to see that she had finally found some entertainment that didn’t exhaust anyone, even if the pink dress was going to be covered in grass stains after this.
She jumped up and came running over when she saw her family approach, breathless but never tired enough to drag her feet. “Katie dropped her giraffe,” she said, holding up a small stuffed toy. Angel helped her tuck it carefully under her sister’s arm, but Buffy was still looking out at the little boy who was sitting where Joy had left him, his mouth hanging slightly open.
“Joy honey, why is Seth staring at us like that?”
“Oh, I guess ‘cause I told him my mom and dad were Buffy and Angel.”
Angel tapped Joy on the shoulder to get her attention. “Go get your swords, okay? It’s time to go home.”
“Wait wait wait,” said Buffy. “Seth is still at Stage One of his shoelace-tying education. Why would he know who Buffy and Angel are?”
“Well, he didn’t,” Joy admitted. “So I told him that too. I hafta say goodbye to Connor.” Then she was off again.
Buffy sighed, and then recovered enough to direct a smile and wave at Seth. “Take a good look at him,” she said to Angel. “In a few years he’ll probably be asking you how to get into hell dimensions.”
“Boys will do anything to impress a Slayer,” he agreed.
“Oh, don’t I know it.” Buffy started gathering up the items around her that belonged in Katie’s diaper bag. “Hey! Tomorrow I’m going to call Kennedy and complain about the way Slayers are being trained.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll vacate the premises.” He crouched awkwardly to reach under the table for a bib without disturbing Katie.
“Come on, you know she loves it when I give her an excuse to get mad at me. Besides,” Buffy continued, picking up one of Joy’s toys, “if you let the new generation keep interfering with your life, I get to interfere with the lives of the new generation. Nobody told me to butt out, anyway. I abdicated fair and square.”
Angel backed out from the table on his knees. “Abdicated? Here I was using the word ‘retired’...”
“Huh. Yeah, it just slipped out. You know how I am with my royal heritage and all.” She said the words ironically to show him she was joking, but the full absurdity of it didn’t strike her until she turned to smile at him. He was kneeling in front of her, his arms full of Katie and her possessions, and she was standing with a foam sword in her right hand, unwittingly poised for the traditional ceremony of bestowing knighthood.
Joy, when she returned, had no idea why they were laughing so hard. It was fortunate that she already knew that her parents, however heroic their lives might have been, were now reliably ridiculous.