Deanna is four years old when her mom dies. She's six when her dad takes her to a row of cans behind a rented house and beams down at her proudly when Deanna shoots every one of them dead-on; her letters when she spells her name are still wobbly, but she can do this. Things tend to even themselves out.
When Deanna hits puberty she grows a little taller and fills out a bit, but she mostly stays the same: slender, whipcord muscles and small chest, able to pass for a teenage boy if she tucks her hair up into a baseball cap. But fuck that: Deanna doesn't want to trim her hair every week and be mistaken for thirteen forever. She lets her hair grow down to her neck and takes kitchen scissors to it every two weeks or so, to make sure it doesn't get in her eyes when she's taking something down.
For all this, she still has a delicate-boned face and freckles and big green eyes, so unless she wants to dress like a boy every day, she gets truckers in bars who call her things like sweetheart. Deanna smirks at them and lets them buy her drinks, and while she sips her beer, she thinks about how easy it is to break a guy's pinky finger and leave him crying on the floor. She doesn't actually go through with it, though. Not often.
Deanna's already too old for Buffy when it starts airing, but Sammy's fourteen, which makes it almost perfect. Deanna sits on the floor, cleaning guns or folding laundry, pretending not to watch, while Sam leans forward in her chair, riveted, the latest bubblegum magazine lying forgotten on the coffee table.
"So who's your favorite?" Deanna asks over dinner (reheated pop tarts, fuck you for asking), mostly to make conversation.
"Willow," Sam says, and goes pink, like maybe she's admitting too much. Like Deanna doesn't know that Sammy's the weird smart outcast in all her classes. "Giles," Sam amends. "He always knows what to do."
Sometimes Deanna thinks they're an after-school special on daddy issues. She lets Sammy have the last pop tart.
In an apartment complex in Philadelphia, Jo Harville admits that she wants to hunt to be close to her dad. Bill Harville died when Jo was four, too. Deanna hands Jo back her dad's knife and thinks, just a weird useless thought with nowhere to go, that all she knows about her mom was that she was Mom, so what the hell kind of action can Deanna possibly take to feel close to her.
Then Sammy turns up in the doorway with coffee, and Deanna takes it with a stupid funny lump in her throat, as though any of this is supposed to mean something important.
Sam is too old for Buffy by the time fifth season rolls around, which means Deanna's way too old for it. But Sammy's off being a genius in California, and Deanna's got late insomniac nights in Denver, in Memphis, in Cincinnati, in St. Louis, so while Dad sleeps in the next room, Deanna watches this show. It's tame and safe, this universe where evil slinks off during the daylight hours and even Buffy's mom takes years to discover there are people you might not want to let into the house. Deanna likes how easy and straightforward Sunnydale's rules are.
Deanna likes that Dawn isn't real, and that Buffy throws herself into Hell to save Dawnie anyway. She cries a bit, because she's a sap when Dad's not looking, and in the fall she's flipping through channels and finds Buffy crawling back up out of her grave, which is a bigger fucking relief than Deanna would have wanted to admit.
After that they spend six months having so many late nights that Deanna loses the thread of the show entirely, but that's okay. It would have helped more when she was younger, anyway.
Sam grows up gorgeous. She has a perfect figure, and rich brown curls that go spilling over her shoulders, and she gets taller than Deanna, which is just adding insult to injury.
"It sucks," Sam says. "Guys don't want to date a girl who's the same height as them."
"Wow, yeah, that really does suck," Deanna says with heavy sarcasm. Sam goes for steady square-jawed types who are taller than her anyway, so Deanna doesn't see what the problem is. Deanna doesn't see what the appeal is, either; what's the point of guys with square jaws and sensitive souls or whatever the fuck Sam is looking for, when the world is also full of girls with wicked smiles and legs that go on for miles? But it's not like Deanna's about to say that, to Dad or Sammy or basically anyone outside maybe California or Massachusetts, because she doesn't want to be asked to put on a show, and when she imagines the look that would cross Dad's face she feels kind of sick.
The year before Sam goes off to college, they're letting a Buffy episode run in the background when all of a sudden Deanna can't look away, because Willow is lying on her back panting with a circle of light around her, fingers clutching at her new friend Tara. For a long moment all sorts of things get tangled up in Deanna's throat.
"Hey, Sammy," she says, "is Willow still your favorite?"
"I'm not a lesbian, Dee," Sam says, rolling her eyes. "Stop being such a bro."
Deanna gives her sister the finger and turns off the TV.
Maybe the moral of the story is that television isn't like life. Sammy isn't going to get hooked on magic or become gay, and she's always been real; if Deanna goes to Hell to save her, it's game over. The things that go bump in the night go bump in the daytime too. A perky cheerleader who saves the day isn't any kind of role model.
But Deanna's pulling into a roadside motel with Sammy asleep on her shoulder, and she thinks about shooting cans off a fence on the first try, and about how that girl in a bar in Portland had smiled back like she might be interested, and about hunting, and about feeling close to Mom. And she thinks that if Buffy's in reruns, it might be nice to turn on the TV and, for a moment, feel safe.