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 Angel's Secrets

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Child of Mine

By Eliz
ealutz(at)hotmail.com

Summary: Joyce's point-of-view, a few days after "Lover's Walk"
Disclaimer: None of characters herein belong to me, I'm just borrowing them from Joss Whedon et al. for a short jaunt.
Author's Notes: This takes place a few days after "Lover's Walk". I was inspired by the recent repeat viewing. Anything in that episode, or any episode prior (particularly "Passion", "Becoming", and "Angel"), is fair game for spoilers. This story is for my own mother, who I've managed to bring into the Buffy-viewing fold. :)
Feedback: Thanks for reading! :) Feedback, as always, is appreciated... in fact, let's be honest... it's ecstatically received. ;)

.

There's blood crusting my daughter's shirt. Blood. Already black and dried, the edges of a horrific stain crumble under my fingertips. Revolted, I drop the shirt, my stomach heaving as I lean against the open washing machine for support. The features of the utility room swirl around me, the light from the single bulb swaying unnaturally in my disorientation. This never gets any easier. You'd think that maybe after the first time, or the tenth, or the twentieth, that finding bloodstains on Buffy's clothing wouldn't shake me to my soul... but that's not true.

In fact, it's harder every time. I used to make up all kinds of excuses to myself why they weren't what they were... I got pretty inventive. I have no idea now how I could have been so oblivious. I think it might have been some kind of self-preservation. If I denied that anything could be happening to her, then it wouldn't be. If I ignored all the signs that she fought for her life on a nightly basis, then she couldn't be. Naive. Pathetic. But it kept me sane. Of course, sooner or later, the bubble of self-delusion must rupture - and Buffy broke the news to me in the worst possible way.

So she's a vampire slayer. Now I know. Dealing with the information - knowing the danger she faces - isn't easy. Not being able to tell anyone is even worse. The only people who can even understand my pain are her little circle of friends. Willow, Xander, her Watcher. Hardly surprising that when my inhibitions were lowered I turned to Gi...

No. Can't go there. I promised myself when I woke up with the hangover from hell that I would be in denial about that - since I couldn't be about Buffy anymore.

Still trembling, I fill the sink with hot water, plucking the cotton shirt up with trembling fingertips and dropping it in to the steaming bath. Let it take care of itself. I need a stiff drink.

.

In the kitchen, I can't find any liquor. I remember that the last time I actually drank was the night of Pat's death. The bottle of peach schnapps had been shattered on the kitchen floor, and I hadn't replaced it. I don't like to keep a lot of alcohol in the house. It's an unnecessary temptation for me, and a bad idea with a teenaged daughter. Not that I think for a moment that Buffy would actually... well... but then, I don't really know her very well, do I? I'm so confused, and her obstinate refusal to discuss most matters of her slaying life doesn't help. I don't push... mostly because I think the details WOULD drive me insane... but at the same time, I have this constant ache just below my heart whenever I see that shadowed, distressed look in her eyes. I wish she would come to me... curl up beside me like she used to do when she was younger... and tell me everything. Tell me about the time she died. Tell me where all the blood comes from. Tell me about Spike. Tell me why she didn't ever tell me anything before.

Deciding that a cup of coffee is a better idea than a drink anyway, I set the machine to brew a fresh pot, thinking that if Buffy actually comes home after training today, she might want a cup before heading out on patrol. She makes an obvious effort these days to reassure me - smiling at me with those knowing, serene eyes that I never would have expected to see staring out at me from my daughter's face. She's so grown up... and I missed it all.

I sip at my coffee... it's far too hot but I don't care. I need the bracing strength of it to bolster my courage for the return to the laundry room. To that damned shirt. I bought it for Buffy two months ago... or maybe even further back than that. I just liked the color and thought she would look pretty in it. I do that sometimes, and she's very understanding about it. I know it's not "cool" these days to dress in what your mother buys you... but she wears everything I've ever come home with. It's just a tiny show of love and respect that I used to take for granted.

I don't take anything for granted anymore.

When the phone rings, I drop the coffee cup. The hot liquid sloshes out, missing my hand by an inch, splattering against the countertop. Miraculously, the cup itself doesn't shatter. It must be made of stronger material than I am.

Shuddering, I reach for the cordless telephone resting on the table, where Buffy left it last night. I'm always nagging her to put it back in the cradle to recharge after she finishes using it, and she's always ignoring me about it. "Hello?" If my voice trembles, it's not because I'm suddenly terrified for her, I tell myself. Glancing automatically at the window, I see the sun shining brightly through the window. She couldn't have been hurt now. It's too bright outside. This can't be the call I dread every minute.

"Mrs. Summers?" The man's voice that replies tentatively to my greeting should be familiar to me, but I'm so wrapped up in the sudden, inescapable dread for Buffy, that I couldn't have placed a name or face with it to save my life. Maybe to save hers, though. "Mrs. Summers?" the man asks again, and this time his voice is worried.

Realizing that I'm being foolish, trying to shake off the dread, I clear my throat. "Yes?"

He sighs - one of relief. "It's Angel."

Of course. My daughter's lover. I think. Like I said, she never tells me anything, and I bet what I don't know about him could fill several books. Until a few nights ago, I still thought she was trying to kill him.

Vampire. The name of the beast doesn't fit with the soft-eyed young man I met in my living room late at night such a long time ago. It fits much better with the stalker who confronted me about Buffy breaking up with him. Who terrified me with his frenetic energy, even as he spoke passionately about his love for Buffy. They didn't even seem like the same man. Which they weren't, really. Of course, Buffy had filled me in on at least that much. That Angel had 'lost his soul'. She didn't tell me how, and she didn't tell my why... but Willow confirmed her story. I still don't understand it. A few nights ago when I saw Angel again for the first time since I listened to Buffy cold-bloodedly discussing his murder with Spike, the word "vampire" seemed to fit him quite well again. He rushed into the doorway, snarling, unable to come in. Spike had been with me in the kitchen, and I felt much safer for his presence. Angel had asked me to invite him in... but I knew now it was a trick. So I didn't. When Buffy appeared seemingly out of nowhere and bodily tossed Spike onto the counter, I'd been shocked. I'd been even more shocked when she invited Angel back in to our house.

"Mrs. Summers?" Angel's anxious voice on the other end of the line reminds me that I'm not alone with my thoughts.

"Of course... Angel... what can I do for you?" I reply, trying to smooth my tone.

"I'm sorry to bother you... it's just..." he hesitates, then plunges ahead. "I was wondering if you would tell me how Buffy is?"

"Excuse me?" I wasn't sure what he was asking... and the fear for Buffy's well-being was surging back with a vengeance. If Angel didn't know how she was... had something happened to her? "Buffy's not here right now. May I take a message?" I automatically fall back on proper telephone etiquette, hoping it will steady my nerves.

"No." Again, there's palpable hesitation on the other end of the line. "I know she's not there... I just..." he made a sound of pure frustration. "I'm not making any sense, I shouldn't have bothered you."

"Wait!" My heart is pounding, and it's suddenly vital to me that I hear what he has to say. "Is Buffy okay? Was she hurt?"

There is a brief silence. "No." The response is heartfelt. Then, "I don't think so... Somebody would've called me, right?... Willow, or someone..."

He's rambling slightly, his voice rising with panic, and I realize that I had worried him needlessly. My own fear was dissolving once more. He was right. If something happened, one of her friends would have called. We were both terrifying each other. "Angel... she's fine as far as I know. Why were you calling?"

He clears his throat before continuing. "I just wanted to know how she's doing. How she's feeling. Is she happy?"

Confused, I switch the telephone to the other ear, grabbing a few paper towels to clean up the spilled coffee. "Don't you know?"

The silence this time is filled with misery. "No. She... she told me..." he stops abruptly. "I just want to know if she's okay." I don't reply, instinctively knowing he has something he needs to work out. "She left me," he whispers. "She told me she couldn't see me anymore."

Ah. Now I finally understand. "Why?" I ask him, my tone teetering between wary and sympathetic. I still remember vividly him threatening Buffy's life the last time she broke it off with him. *You don't understand. I'll die without Buffy. She'll die without me*. The words still chill my heart.

"It's... complicated. I'm sorry to bother you with this, Mrs. Summers," he says, and I have the distinct impression he's going to hang up the phone.

"Wait - is she going to be safe?" I ask quickly, unable to shake the image of his menacing form out of my mind. It didn't quite fit with the tender way he'd stood by her in the kitchen a few nights ago, protectively...

"From me, you mean?" he laughs shortly... and it was bitter sound. I could tell at that moment that he hated himself. "She'll be safe. I'll never hurt her again. Never."

I believe him. I couldn't say why... just that the way he said it makes me feel safer for her. I don't know what to say now, though. What do you say to a man who almost killed your child? Who made her eyes dark with pain and terror and despair? Who loved her and made her so happy you could feel the room tremble with her emotion - and you didn't even know why?

He apparently senses my confusion, and says goodbye quickly.

But I haven't answered his question yet. "Angel - she's fine. She seems sad sometimes... but she'll be okay." I bite my lip, not knowing if that was what he wanted to hear. He sighs though, and it doesn't sound painful. "How will you be?" I can't help asking.

Again, he chuckles bitterly. "I'll live."

We both see the horrible irony in that.

"Well..." I finally say awkwardly, not wanting to torture him further. "Call again if you need anything, all right?"

He doesn't reply for a moment. "Please don't tell her I called, okay? I don't want her to think that I'm... just please don't?"

He sounds so anxious I can't refuse him. "I won't." I have this irrational urge to reassure him that everything will be fine... everything will turn out okay... but it seems too desperately naive. Instead, I say goodbye to him and listen as he hangs the phone up.

.

Having cleaned away the spilled coffee and refilled my mug, I sit at the kitchen counter, watching the sun set slowly. Buffy still isn't home. I tell myself that she's at the library with her Watcher. Or that she went out to see a movie with Willow and Xander, and just forgot to call. Unfortunately, my third stock excuse - that she's off seeing Angel illicitly, is necessarily being shelved almost before I get any use from it. I remember that last night she barely had two bites of dinner to eat. She looked depressed, and now I can guess why.

I know I should leave my worrying, and force myself to get up and go take care of that stupid shirt in the utility room... but I can't make myself leave the sight of that red sun sinking below the horizon. I used to love sunsets. Hank and I used to go on dates just to watch the sun douse itself in the Pacific - no other reason. I loved them. Now I hate sunsets, knowing that she's out there fighting.

"Mom! I'm home!"

The sound of her voice streaks through my chest like a shot, and I have to fight back sudden, irrational tears of relief. "I'm in the kitchen, honey!" I call back, amazed that my voice doesn't shake.

She walks in, tossing her bookbag carelessly into the corner. If Angel hadn't called, I might not notice the dark circles under her eyes now. She looks tired. A lingering puffiness in her eyelids betrays that she cried earlier in the day, and I wasn't there to comfort her. "What's for dinner?" she asks with a smile. It reaches her eyes... it just doesn't resonate there as it usually does.

"I'm not sure," I reply. "I thought we could order out. Sound good?"

"Yeah." She plunks herself down on another chair. "Were there any calls for me?" There's a strange anticipation in her tone that tells me she's wondering if Angel called. I wonder how she might have guessed. Maybe she broke down and called him from school... and the phone was busy? I'm just speculating. I'll never really know, because I'm sure she'll never tell me. I remember my promise to Angel not to tell her... and I regret it.

"No, honey. No calls." I hesitate as her face falls, the light in her eyes dimming. "Why? Were you expecting one?"

"I was just hoping..." she cuts herself off, shaking her head. I notice a few soft strands of hair escape her upswept ponytail to curl against her nape. They remind me suddenly, achingly, of leaning over the railing of her crib when she was a baby, stroking the tendrils of hair that were barely there, loving this child of mine.

"Never mind, Mom." She is obviously trying to forget him as she stands up and paces towards the refrigerator. "I'm starved though... do we have anything to snack on? Giles made me do endurance running today." She sounds aggrieved.

"Carrots are in the crisper. Why don't you get something to drink, and we can think about what we want for dinner?"

She smiles at me again. "Oh! I was going to go to a movie with Will and Xander tonight, Mom... things have been kind of rough since... well... the three of us just want to hang out. Giles gave me the night off patrol. Isn't that great?"

I agree wholeheartedly. This is one of the nights then - few and far between - that I won't worry myself sick about her.

"Anyway," she continues, already consuming the baby carrots with gusto, "I wanted to wear my aqua shirt. With the pearl buttons? Do you know where it is?"

I think of it, soaking in the utility room sink. The horror of finding the crusted blood on it still fresh in my mind. I don't know what to say. She doesn't even seem to remember that she wore it in a fight. While slaying.

"It's one of my favorites," she's musing, still crunching carrots at an alarming rate. She must be famished.

"It's in the wash, sweetie - but it'll be done by the time we finish dinner," I hear myself say, and she grins at me.

"Great!" She stuffs the bag of carrots back into the refrigerator. "Can we get pizza? I already had my vegetable," she points out in a wheedling tone of voice.

I'm already halfway to the door. "Sure... would you order it, honey? I need to switch the laundry over." I leave her in the kitchen, closing the utility room door behind me. The light is still on... I must have left it on when I staggered out of here before. I walk over to the sink, seeing the water clouded now, and pull out the shirt, forcing myself not to shudder as the pinkish water floods over my hands. I spread the edges of the shirt... and the stain is gone. I know it's merely a testament to how effective the detergent I bought is... but it seems like so much more. A return - if only for a moment - to a more innocent time. And it is just for a moment - I realize that. Life as I knew it, the grasp I thought I had on parenting, has dissolved. I'll try. For my daughter's sake, I'll try - but it's a constant battle.

The End

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