The library doors swung open.
Jenny didn't even bother to look up from the text. "You know, I think this could be even worse than the Master, if you can believe that."
The voice was female; this was unexpected. Jenny looked up. "Oh. Oh, no, I'm sorry – it's just that – well, I'm not used to other people using the library. Can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Rupert Giles. I understand he's the school librarian."
Jenny closed her book and tried to decide what to say, whilst examining the woman for clues as to her identity. She looked to be in her early forties, smartly dressed, and with pleasant features. But, whilst she seemed calm, Jenny had enough experience of life in Sunnydale to recognise when someone was barely holding it together. You could see it in the eyes.
"Uh, Mr Giles isn't here right now. Can I help?"
The woman seemed to consider this for a moment. She glanced at the bruise on Jenny's cheek, then looked down at the text Jenny had been consulting, its leather cover decorated with fading runes. "Perhaps. My name is Joyce Summers and I'm looking for my daughter, Buffy. She came to Sunnydale at Mr Giles' request two weeks ago. I haven't heard from her since."
Jenny searched for the right words, but the pause and her expression were enough.
"She's dead isn't she?" Joyce whispered.
"Yes. I'm so sorry."
Her composure shattered and Joyce sank to her knees, sobbing, mumbling a litany of denial. Unable to find any suitable words of comfort, Jenny came forward and placed a hand on the other woman's shoulder.
For a few seconds there they remained, until the doors opened once more to admit Larry and Oz. Larry's voice seemed horribly magnified.
"...'cause I'll only get into college on a scholarship. And I'm like, 'Grandma! I'm the only player left, what –' oh, uh, wow, sorry."
The two boys stopped, unsure how to react. Another moment of silence and still.
Joyce's hand gripped Jenny's outstretched arm. "Who did it?"
Sitting at one of the library desks with a mug of hot, sweet tea, Joyce had recovered some of her composure, though her throat was tight and her eyes burned. "It's funny, I've – I've tried to prepare myself for this for over a year now, since I she told me she was a Slayer. And – and I've been losing her for a lot longer than that. But it still hits you like a runaway train."
"If it helps any, she died fighting," the boy named Oz said. He was sharpening a stake. "A lot of people escaped from the factory because of her. Including me."
Joyce nodded, trying to find comfort in that. "But this – Master, he survived?"
It was Jenny who answered this question. "Yes. The assault on the factory weakened him, a little. Took out some of his most vicious lieutenants, stopped his plans to mechanise the slaughter, at least for now. But I'm sure it won't be long before he's back, and probably stronger than before. With Giles dead too, I'm not sure what we can do to stop any of it."
"Which is what I don't understand," Joyce said. "Why don't you all just leave?
Larry shrugged. "Someone's got to do something. If not us, then who?"
Joyce considered that. "Then I want to help."
Jenny gave her a faint smile, and placed a hand on Joyce's own. "Thank you. But, really, it's not your fight. You've lost enough."
"Miss Calendar, I've lost everything. But if the fight was Buffy's, then that makes it mine now. What else do I have?"
Joyce didn't even return to Cleveland to pack. She didn't want to leave Sunnydale in case she lost her nerve, and so she arranged for a removals company to do it for her.
A town teetering on the brink of apocalypse did at least have inexpensive real estate, and she found a place on Revello within days. It was larger than she strictly required, but she wanted the space even if it were mostly empty.
Regular employment was equally simple to secure. With the mortality rate amongst her faculty almost as high as amongst her students, Principal Barton was only too happy to employ someone with a decent knowledge of the subject as the new art teacher.
Nothing else was so easy. Buffy's death was so overwhelming in its pain that it made her dizzy, and yet each day she found herself busy with arranging her new life and each evening spending time with the strange little group of people she now knew as the 'White Hats'.
Somehow, she got through.
It was her first Christmas without Buffy, and the White Hats had come for dinner. The scent of roasting turkey lingered on the air as Joyce handed Jenny a large glass of wine.
"Won't their families miss them?" Joyce asked, brushing some lint off her powder blue top. She had dressed up for the occasion, and was trying to suppress the feeling that doing so, that celebrating Christmas at all, was somehow a betrayal.
Taking a sip of her pinot grigio, Jenny looked through into Joyce's dining room. Larry, slightly tipsy with eggnog, was tearing the wrapping paper off his gift from Oz. It appeared to be an aged copy of 'Catcher in the Rye'.
"Maybe. But they've both lost one parent this year, I'm not sure they really want to be at home today. And. hey, at least they can be themselves here."
Larry was now giving Oz a thank-you kiss, and Joyce wasn't sure what she found the more odd: the fact it was one boy kissing another, or how tender the otherwise brusque and brawny Larry was with Oz.
"I'm still getting used to that," Joyce said. "Although, uh, you know, it's not that – I mean, I am very happy for them."
Jenny giggled a little, her large, dark eyes twinkling. "Joyce, you worked in art galleries for, what, ten years? You can't tell me this is the first gay couple you've ever met."
Joyce flushed a little. "No, of course not. Just never this young."
They both looked back at the kissing couple, and the smile on Jenny's face faded.
"I guess they don't feel they have any time to waste."
Joyce's chest tightened a little.
"No. No, I guess not. Uh, I should really go check the turkey."
As she started towards the kitchen she felt Jenny's hand on her arm. She turned.
"Joyce? I meant to say thank you for all this. It's the nicest day I've had for longer than I can remember. And you look lovely, by the way."
She leaned in to kiss Joyce on the cheek.
The tightness eased, just a little.
"So let me get this right: the Master is busy killing one half of Sunnydale and now we've just discovered the Mayor is planning to turn himself into a giant, evil demon that will kill the other half?"
From his regular spot on the library steps, Larry looked askance at Jenny.
"That about sums it up."
Next to him, Oz said, "on the bright side, one of them might end up killing the other. Like King Kong versus Godzilla."
Larry clearly hadn't considered it this way. "Man, you think? But, wait, didn't they destroy Tokyo?"
"Either way," said Jenny, interjecting quickly to prevent debate, "this is way beyond any and all of us. I've put a call into the Watcher's Council. It took a bit of persuading and just a little emotional blackmail, but they're going to send the Slayer. When they can."
Joyce's brow furrowed. "When they can?
"They're having a bit of trouble." She avoided Joyce's eyes here. "Buffy's replacement has just been killed on a mission in New York. From what I can gather the newest Slayer is a little... erratic. I've tried to explain this won't wait, but it wasn't cutting much ice. They actually said, 'it's not the end of the world'. Though I suppose they know what they mean."
The bell rang. Joyce gathered her papers. "I guess we just carry on the best we can then. Happy first day of term everyone."
It became a rhythm: teaching during the day, research and patrol in the evenings, sleep when you could fit it in. When Oz's father finally decided to leave Sunnydale, Oz moved into one of Joyce's spare rooms. Consequently Larry became an almost permanent fixture, though Joyce made him sleep in the other spare room.
The boys even kept up the pretence that he stayed there all night.
Joyce began to learn skills she never thought she could possess. She was good at research and, with her knowledge of art, especially useful at deciphering clues from engravings and symbols.
She was still the weakest in a fight, but was beginning to get the hang of a crossbow and even managed to decapitate a vampire with a fire axe in a scuffle near the school, though she suffered a cracked rib for her trouble.
On a Saturday evening, over dinner, before they patrolled, she and Jenny would share a glass of wine and talk about literature, or botany, the novels of Raymond Chandler, or how icky jello was – anything that had nothing to do with fighting evil. It was the only point in the week Joyce could ever even slightly relax.
Throughout, Buffy was never far from her thoughts.
"It's probably from Dr Clark. He always looks down my top if I see him in the teacher's lounge."
Joyce grimaced, and set her Valentine's Day card down on the library counter. Then she caught Jenny's odd half-smile. "What? Do you know who it's from? Am I being really stupid?"
Before Jenny could reply, the doors swung open and Oz came in. His black eye looked even worse in the daylight. Joyce slipped the card into her bag.
"So," said Jenny, "did you get a card from Larry? Come on, show us poor single women what we're missing."
"Sort of. Less a card, more an 'I love you' written on my chest in lipstick when I woke up. I think he must have borrowed yours, Mrs S; I don't have any in that shade."
Joyce rolled her eyes. "So long as he put it back. Listen, Miss Calendar and I thought we would go on patrol ourselves tonight, let you two have the night off. I don't want any arguments, things have been pretty – oh God."
Panicked screams were echoing down the corridors. They grabbed their weapons and ran.
When they reached the entrance hall, they met a scene of total chaos. At its centre, shrugging off his thick, slightly smoking blanket, stood the Master.
"Welcome, dear friends, to the Sunnydale High School St Valentine's Day massacre, 1999." A shrieking Harmony Kendall was brought to him, neck bared.
"Do tuck in."
"The whole school. Which contained most of our weapons and a large number of occult texts left by Rupert Giles. Not to mention at least twenty students and staff – yes, I understand, but – yes, a snake demon! Please, you have to send help."
When she finished the call, Jenny threw herself onto the sofa next to Joyce. Her eyes were brimming with tears.
She wiped at them with the back of her hand, letting out a cry of frustration.
Joyce realised she'd never seen Jenny cry. She'd never seen any of them cry.
She wrapped an arm around Jenny's shoulders. "Tomorrow, we're going to move you in here. I'd feel better if we were all in one place. Larry can sleep in Oz's room, it's not as if he ever uses his own bed anyway."
Jenny didn't reply, but merely pressed herself against Joyce's body.
Eventually she murmured, "I wasn't there."
She lifted her head and looked in Joyce's eyes. "I wasn't there. When Buffy came to Sunnydale. Rupert and I had had an argument and I'd stormed off for a couple of days. When I came back, everything had gone wrong. Nancy was dead, Rupert was dead, and your daughter was dead. I never even met her."
"None of that was your fault."
"But maybe if I had been there..."
"None of it."
"I found Rupert on the floor of his condo. He'd summoned a demon, I've no idea why. It killed him. And I wasn't there. I wasn't fucking there."
Joyce cupped Jenny's face in her hand. She repeated, "none of it was your fault, Jenny, really."
She held Jenny's gaze until Jenny blinked and looked away.
"We don't need a plan. I go out and kill them. You all stay here. The end."
In Joyce's kitchen, Faith put her hands on her hips and stared the White Hats down.
"But that's just reckless!" cried Joyce. "It's what got Buffy killed – and it will get you killed."
"Besides," said Larry, "you don't know this town. We do. You need us."
Faith made a dismissive noise.
Her Watcher raised his hands in supplication. "Please. If I can just say that, whilst I agree we need to formulate a strategy, I must agree with Faith on one point – civilians should not be involved."
Joyce had never met a shirt so infuriatingly stuffed as Wesley Wyndham-Price.
"We are of course very grateful for any counsel you can provide, but you have to leave this to the professionals."
"Dude, we've been fighting vampires every night for nearly two years. That must get us some sort of field promotion," said Larry.
"Improvised warfare is hardly a substitute for my many years of training and Faith's special gifts."
Jenny was clearly resisting the temptation to throw her mug of tea at him. "We have an ancient vampire who's so far killed one Slayer, and a demented Mayor who is about to become a virtually indestructible snake demon. No matter how good you are you're going to need help."
Wesley took off his glasses and began to clean them with a handkerchief. "This is hardly the first apocalypse the Watcher's Council has prevented, you know."
Oz looked at Wesley. "Maybe. But you only need to mess up once."
Faith's prone body lay in the back of Oz's van, covered in a blanket.
"She is a Slayer," said Wesley, crouched next to her. He seemed older, and wearier, and more like a real person at last. "They have superior healing abilities. I expect she'll be fine in the long run."
It wasn't clear who he was trying to convince.
In the passenger seat, a bloodied Oz sat in stony silence, Jenny's good arm wrapped around his thin frame, whilst Joyce pushed the van as hard as she could and tried to ignore the pain in her kidneys.
"I need to get to a call box, make a report to the Council. They'll have to decide what to do. Perhaps the two sides will exhaust each other. We can but hope."
"Like King Kong and Godzilla," said Oz, barely audible over the roar of the engine.
"Yes. Quite so."
The hospital in Oxnard was bustling and bright, and it seemed a world away from Sunnydale. Faith was now attached to various machines, her condition critical but not immediately life-threatening.
The medical staff had attended to the injuries of the survivors, except Wesley, who had shrugged off their help to ensconce himself in a phone booth. There he remained, on the line to the Council, expression grim.
At the doors to the hospital, Jenny stood smoking. When she saw Joyce coming, she stubbed her cigarette out on the ground and smiled apologetically.
"Where did you get that from?" Joyce asked.
"From one of the janitors. Sorry, I had given up."
"Don't worry. I feel like one myself."
"How is Oz?"
Joyce sighed. "Hard to tell. Grieving in his own way, I suppose."
"He's young. I'm not actually sure that makes it any better, but I guess it's one of those things you tell yourself when you're older." Jenny rubbed her eye. "I can't believe it went so wrong."
"It was a million to one shot. We knew that. But we had to try."
"And you were incredibly brave. Getting Faith out of the Bronze." Joyce wrapped an arm around Jenny's waist. "I was so proud of you."
"Really?" Jenny turned into the embrace and kissed Joyce full on the lips.
Joyce pulled back. "Jenny, I –"
"Sorry, another million to one shot. But after what's happened, I don't want to wait any longer. I love you, Joyce. And it's fine if you don't love me back, but I had to tell you."
"I didn't even know – I thought Rupert was –"
Jenny smiled. "Oh, he was. But I like women too. More specifically, you. But I understand if you don't."
"No. Well. I – I did go to a women's college, so – actually – " Joyce looked into Jenny's beautiful, dark eyes. "I think I need to take this slow. And I do. But you're right, we might not have the time. So, er, slowish."
"We can go slow. I like slow."
Joyce smiled a little. "Okay. Um. Wow. It's going to sound odd, perhaps, but I hadn't thought of you this way, not consciously. But now – that kiss. Jenny, you don’t know what you mean to me. What Oz means to me, in a different way. And I don't know what's going to happen now, what we're going to do, but if you're there then it's not important. If you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I think I do."
Jenny kissed her again, and this time Joyce responded, parting her lips to allow Jenny's tongue to swipe across her bottom lip.
"It's been quite a day," said Jenny, when they were done.
"No kidding. Anyway, I think we should get back in and check on Oz. And then we need to decide what we're going to do tomorrow. Assuming the apocalypse doesn't come."
They started to walk back into the hospital.
"We could move to LA," said Jenny, putting her arm around Joyce's. "And, oo, we could open a detective agency. There's a lot of paranormal stuff goes on in big cities. We could even get Wesley to help us, the Council are bound to sack him..."