When the first e-mail came, Joyce almost deleted it. After all, it wasn’t addressed to her. Someone had simply mistyped the address as easily as pressing a wrong number on a phone.
But she didn’t. It was a slow day at the gallery, the summer heat driving people either to the beach or to the sanctuary of the mall’s air conditioning, and she was more than a little tired of playing solitaire to pass the time until the Fed Ex guy showed up. It made sense to kill a few minutes and let “E” know that his message to his friend about the awful weather in Minnesota had gone astray.
She never expected a response.
My sincerest apologies for having troubled you with my meaningless missive, and yet, your brief note reminds me that there is still hope for the rabble in the streets. Thank you for a momentary spot of sunshine in an otherwise bleak day. I am grateful to know that graciousness still exists in this sad, sad world. ~E
It shouldn’t have made her smile, but it did. Deleting it from her inbox, Joyce set to her day at work, inventorying the artifacts delivered by the Fed Ex guy the day before, but every once in a while, her hand would pause reaching into the box and her gaze would slide to the closed door of her office. It was such a small thing, and really, she wasn’t entirely sure why it kept coming back to her. It wasn’t like she didn’t have plenty of other things to occupy her mind, or other people to talk to. Except, other than work, she didn’t. So at the end of the day, as she hung up the phone with Buffy and the announcement that she was going out with Riley and wouldn’t be home until very, very late, Joyce made a decision.
The next morning when she logged on, there was an answer to the e-mail she had spent far too long composing.
I’m afraid my experiences are quite the opposite. In my line of work, honesty is less important than results. And really, I said nothing that wasn’t true…
And so it began. With a misdirected e-mail and a gesture of manners that Joyce would have considered normal beyond the city limits of a Hellmouth. So innocuous in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps that should have been her first clue.
They kept it simple at first. A daily message back and forth each day, asking politely how the other was doing and assuring that the sender was fine. Within a week, one e-mail became two and the questions more probing, E asking gentle queries about her job that Joyce found herself answering before she could think otherwise. She attempted to do the same, but he was far less eager to share tidbits about his current life than he was about his past. All she could glean of his present was that he worked for a government agency, doing “primarily research,” that he detested the cold and his employers with equal passion, and that his choice to be single was not entirely his own.
For Joyce, it was oddly enough.
She didn’t tell Buffy. Beyond the fact that they were growing beyond sharing the minutiae of their lives, Joyce liked the fact that she had this small safe haven that was entirely her own. She could complain to E about some of her idiot customers who didn’t know their African from their Asian art, and not worry about it coming back to bite her in the ass as bad PR. She could get upset about Buffy’s activities without wondering if she was putting her daughter in danger. She never gave E too many specifics – after all, she watched Oprah; she knew the dangers of the Internet – but always, even when she was so vague that she wondered how in hell it could be coherent to anybody but her, he came back with just the right response. A sarcastic joke about southern California intellect. A compassionate remark about worrying on the path of a loved one. He shared anecdotes from his past that had her laughing at her desk, and always, Joyce walked away convinced she was doing the right thing.
She only began to worry when she turned down the offer of a picnic date for the Fourth of July from one of her favorite customers. There hadn’t even been any hesitation.
“I’m sorry,” Joyce said with a smile. “I’m afraid I have other plans.”
It wasn’t until the door had clicked shut behind him that she realized those other plans were a day spent in front of her computer. E had mentioned that the national holiday practically shut everything down at work, and Joyce had leapt to offer to keep him occupied.
Did e-mail agreements count as real dates?
It’s been far too long since I’ve spent a holiday – even one as inane as this one – in such pleasurable company. A long time ago, in a life that seems too far away, I gave up public displays in favor of making my own merriment. Far more enjoyable, trust me. After all, who better knows how to entertain myself than me? A joke, of course. Because our correspondence has far exceeded any of my own attempts for quite some time…
There were times when what she was doing bothered Joyce, though. For as much as they wrote – and by mid-July, their e-mails were up to a dozen a day – she still didn’t know his name. Always, he signed off on their messages with “E,” and while she had eventually volunteered her full name, the few times she brought the issue up, he carefully danced away from it. His work, he claimed. The government found it too sensitive and discouraged contact with outsiders as much as possible. He was doing it to protect Joyce more than anything else.
She wasn’t sure she believed that. It didn’t take much longer until she was unwilling to sit back and be led by his charming words without question.
Her first attempts gave up nothing. It was a generic Yahoo address that he used, and the personal profile yielded only the facts that the user was male and in Minnesota. Internet searches of the address came up with even less. Without something more specific, Joyce could do nothing but bang her head against the wall.
She asked Willow as a last result. She was too eager for answers to worry about not trusting her daughter’s best friend.
“Sure, I can do it.” But the tiny line between Willow’s brows betrayed her discomfort with the request. “What do you need it for?”
Joyce stalled. She didn’t want anything to get back to Buffy about it, not yet. There would be lectures about responsibility and safety, and Joyce really wasn’t in the mood to have to deal with role reversals and an overprotective daughter who wasn’t willing to let her lonely mother have a life outside of her work. So she took one last stab at asking E.
If you can’t trust me with your name, how can you trust me to be your friend?
He didn’t respond.
She hadn’t known how much she looked for his messages to mark her day. The first day after writing him, Joyce refreshed her e-mail every fifteen minutes, hoping to hear something, anything, even if it was just a dashed note to tell her to mind her own business. Nothing came. The initial sense of panic was quickly replaced by loss, until her mood had plummeted by the time Willow showed up after the gallery closed.
“It won’t be necessary after all,” Joyce said. She knew her smile fooled neither of them. “But thank you anyway.”
The second day wasn’t much better. Her refresh rate was lowered to once every half hour.
She felt ridiculous for being so disappointed. Logic told her she had been played, but it had felt so real, his words so genuine, that reason took a back seat to the hurt feelings. E had been the first person in a long time to pay any personal attention to Joyce at all; there had even been dreams of the more than naughty nature that had made her vibrator unnecessary for the first time in months. It should have been a fresh chance. Buffy would have teased her endlessly about her online boyfriend, but it would have been worth it. Now she was simply another talk show subject.
Her days grew impossibly long. Without the respite of her communications, Joyce buried herself in the gallery, agreeing without hesitation when Buffy announced she was going on a retreat with Willow and Giles. It was better to be alone, she thought. No reminders of Buffy’s thriving relationship, no hints of youth proclaiming the bright futures they still held in the palm of their hands. There would be time enough later to start thinking about dating. Perhaps in the fall. Perhaps winter.
The heavy knock came at the locked gallery doors on the ninth day after her e-mail to E. Four years in Sunnydale had taught Joyce not to open up to just anybody after nightfall, but the repeated pounding kept her from concentrating on tallying the sales she had made that day, and her eyes kept lifting to stare at the front of the display floor. Finally, she gave up altogether and grabbed the cross she kept in her top drawer.
“Who is it?” she called out.
The knocking stopped. All she heard was a muffled groan.
If she had considered it more thoroughly, Joyce would have called the police to have them take care of the disturbance. There was even the briefest of flickers that maybe she should find Buffy and get her help. In the end, she looked out the front window to see who was trying to get in because her own pride got in the way. Her gallery. Her problem. She was a grown woman. It wasn’t necessary to go running like a child every time something difficult presented itself.
She called out again, this time with her body pressed to the door. There was a shuffling on the sidewalk, then a creak of the hinges as whoever it was leaned on the opposite side.
“Joyce?” The male voice was hoarse, faint from the thickness separating them. It was also British, though she knew without a shadow of a doubt it didn’t belong to either Rupert or Spike.
“Do I know you?” she asked. In spite of her better intentions, her grip on the cross relaxed while her other hand drifted to the lock.
The man chuckled. It was silken and deep, but still unfamiliar. It wasn’t unwelcome, though. A warning frisson of electricity shivered down Joyce’s spine.
“The only one who does these days,” he said. “It’s E.” There was a pause. “Ethan. Which I was foolish enough not to tell you sooner.”
Her fingers were flying before he’d finished speaking, undoing the latch, yanking open the door. A tall, slim body stumbled into her arms, and Joyce barely had time to catch him before her palms slid across the bloody skin of his back, bared from a ravaged shirt.
She helped him without a word to her office in the back, all too aware of the thundering heat of his body and the runaway pulse at his exposed neck. A thousand questions were tumbling through her mind, but the most important wasn’t uttered until he had collapsed into her desk chair.
His eyes lifted to hers. She had no idea what their true color was; his pupils were so dilated, the black swallowed any of the irises. Lean features were made even sharper by the high cheekbones, and his eventful years were etched into the lines around his eyes. “I escaped,” he said in those rich tones. A flash of pain made him wince. “Though perhaps, not as cleanly as I would have wished.”
She grabbed the first aid kit she kept for emergencies before asking the obvious follow-up. “I thought you said you worked for the government.”
“I do. Did, rather.” His hand caught hers before she could start to remove his shirt. “I never said it was voluntarily.”
There were more questions, and more answers, and all the while, Joyce worked with Ethan to tend to the bloodied gouges across his back. If she wasn’t the mother of a Slayer, and if she hadn’t been the victim of mystical forces more than once herself, she might have been skeptical of the story he wove. Government agencies simply weren’t interested in the demonic or magical.
But then she remembered Riley. And the events that had compelled Buffy to send Joyce out of town for her own safety. And the chip in Spike’s head. She let Ethan continue, long past voicing queries of her own.
It took over half an hour to properly take care of all of his injuries. She gave Ethan a spare t-shirt from a recent promotion to wear in replacement of his dark button-down and stepped back in order to give him room to put it on.
“Disappointed?” he asked with a wry smile. “I’m not quite the gallant knight I’m sure you envisioned.”
“I was never looking for a knight,” she replied. She busied her hands with his ruined shirt, keeping her eyes averted from his lean form. At least that part of her fantasy had been accurate. “I was looking for a friend. I thought you would’ve known that.”
The soft exhalation that was her name made her hesitate. She didn’t even realize she was trembling until he closed the distance between them and took the shirt away from her.
“I am not a nice man,” Ethan murmured. “I used your kindness as an escape from my dull, dreary existence, and then I used it far more literally. If ever you had a reason to call the police and have me taken away in shackles, it would be now.”
“Why? Because you’re a fugitive?”
“No.” His lashes dipped; for some reason, it surprised her that he couldn’t quite meet her eyes. “Because you were never less than honest with me, while I find it difficult to keep my hands on the truth without the benefit of chains and handcuffs. And even then…” Ethan shrugged. “Let us just say that I couldn’t have escaped without your e-mails. Do you really find it a coincidence that I’m here in Sunnydale?”
She didn’t, but she hadn’t allowed herself the luxury of contemplating it. “Would they really arrest you?” she asked. “You haven’t done anything wrong…have you?”
“Against the law?” He shook his head. “But that won’t stop them. I’m a weapon they’ve grown accustomed to wielding. They will do what they must to take me back.”
“So you’re just going to run.” It seemed so ludicrous and yet, considering it was the Hellmouth, she wasn’t surprised. Only disappointed. “What about friends? Family? There must be someone you care about enough to tell what’s going on.”
“Sadly, only one.” She caught a bemused smile before he turned away and headed back to the front of the gallery. “Why do you think I came here?”
The time it took for his words to sink in had her alone in the office, staring at the door through which he’d exited. There was little she had had in her life that was truly her own. Buffy was even more independent than ever, and there were only so many book clubs one person could join. Ethan had broken the monotony.
Joyce fled after him, catching up long before he could reach the front door. “You can’t just leave,” she said. “You’re hurt, and you need to rest. If you won’t risk a hotel, come home with me. I have a spare bed---.”
“And a daughter who loathes me,” he finished. “My name wasn’t the only tidbit I withheld from you, Joyce. I chose to contact you initially because of how highly Rupert spoke of you the last time I was in town. I simply…never expected to succumb to your charms so readily.”
She heard everything he said. Previous acquaintance of the not so pleasant variety with Buffy, friend of Rupert’s. She even acknowledged that some of her original suppositions about being used had proven true.
But what captured Joyce the most was his validation of the feelings shared within their e-mails. He could have been lying, but her instincts were shouting he wasn’t. What did he possibly have to gain? He had asked for nothing. In fact, he would have left if she hadn’t stopped him.
He would have left.
“If you think I’m going to let you run off just to get yourself arrested again,” she said, “you obviously don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
He stared at her as she explained her plan, arguing against his use of paid transportation. “That’s the first place they’re going to look,” she said. “Which means you need someone with a car to help you get someplace safe from the American government.”
Ethan’s mouth twitched. “Why, Joyce Summers. I believe you’re suggesting aiding and abetting.”
She returned his smile. “I believe I am.”
Gently, he reached forward and brushed a knuckle across her cheek. “And this is where I repay you for your friendship,” he murmured. “And turn you down.”
It wasn’t what she expected. “Why? You need me.”
“So does your daughter. I can hardly be the one to take you away from her. There are many things Rupert would forgive me for, but I’m fairly certain that is not one of them.”
Folding her arms over her chest, Joyce stared him down. “As much as I appreciate the effort, it’s unnecessary. I’m not talking about leaving Sunnydale permanently. I’m merely suggesting I take a much needed vacation and help a dear friend with a personal problem. Two weeks, tops. I think Buffy can do without me for two weeks.”
She wasn’t going to let him change her mind. Even when he opened his mouth again to argue, Joyce launched into more explanations, assuring him that she was a grown woman and capable of making such a decision without fear of reprisals. What she didn’t say was that the potential of time spent with him, an adventure that would break the doldrums of her day-to-day, had her heart pounding inside her chest, her palms sweaty with excitement.
It was a chance to live again, if only for a few precious days. It was an opportunity to remind herself she was far from old, maybe even wanted.
His eventual acquiescence had her beaming. “I’ll leave a note for Buffy so she doesn’t worry,” she said. “I don’t think she even has an e-mail account.”
“Poor girl. She has no idea what she’s missing.”
Joyce smiled. Tentatively, she reached forward and touched his fingers, sighing when he laced their hands together automatically. “No,” she agreed. “She really doesn’t.”