Lost...but not forgotten. Lost...but not forgotten.
Buffy woke with tears sliding down her face. Had she been dreaming again about being on the road?
She lay very still and closed her eyes tightly, feeling the pain, just giving in to it, just for one moment longer, letting it sear like a cauterizing blade. Then she deliberately wiped the tears away. If she could be very honest with herself -- and these last few months had made her nothing if not honest -- she knew she hadn't been dreaming at all.
What she hoped was that the tears were healing a very deep wound, the one that cut right through to her soul. The pain that lingered even when she smiled.
So many friends lost. Ford. Kendra. Ms. Calendar.
Love lost. Angel's face filled her mind.
Even now, her mom was trying desperately to cling to the idea that Buffy had done something that had made her the Chosen One. It was like Joyce was blaming her for making some mistake -- like the punishment for shoplifting that tube of lipstick from Macy's back in L.A. freshman year was a lifetime of battling the forces of darkness. Because if you got handed the Slayer rap because you were bad, maybe you could make up for it and get the sentence reduced.
So very untrue.
Buffy knew now that some people never got touched by all the bad juju. When you didn't expect much, you got what you wanted: a husband or wife, a good job, some kids. At the mall, they bought happy little magnetic plaques they put on their refrigerators: Take time to smell the flowers. Kiss the cook. What you believe, you can achieve. Maybe they went to church, or did crafts, like Mrs. Calhoun, two doors down, who spent half the day doing paint-by-numbers. She was so proud of the finished pictures, but really, all she had to do was make sure she painted inside the preprinted lines on the cardboard. She didn't even have to pick out what colors to use. They came in little containers with numbers on them.
There was nothing about Buffy's life that was like that. Not a single place where all she had to do was stay inside the lines.
There were also people whose lives were full of joy. People like that artist, Mary Cassatt, who must have been a very happy mom to paint all those pictures of mothers and children. Buffy could just imagine her washing a chubby little baby or tenderly rocking a child to sleep.
Then the image of Timmy Stagnatowski exploding into dust blotted out the picture.
No, it was not self-pity that made Buffy cry in her sleep. She was the Slayer, the one in all her generation who stood between the forces of darkness and the rest of humanity. She had accepted that, moved forward with that.
She believed it was a personal exorcism to let herself feel this much pain, and try to find a way to let it out. Let it go. But sometimes she felt that with each tear, she was losing more than the pain. A memory. The ability to care so deeply, want so terribly...
She caught her breath and stopped her tears. She could take no more, not now. It was just that it was always darkest before the dawn. That's what people like Mrs. Calhoun or the famous baby-painter would say, anyway. But for Buffy, the world kept getting darker, and dawn seemed further and further away all the time.
Outside, clouds were rumbling, threatening a downpour, and the sound echoed inside her room. In the back of her mind, she was always wondering, Was that really thunder? Or was it actually a portent of some as-yet-unknown evil about to descend, one she'd have to fight, to her death, if need be?
But that didn't make her cry. It honestly didn't. She had accepted her duty as the Slayer. It wasn't that she was looking for a way out.
She wasn't trying to run away.
She silently gazed at what was left of being a normal teenager: Mr. Gordo, her stuffed pig, and all her stuffed animals. The butterflies on her door and her Japanese umbrellas. Some friend of her mom's had said this was such a sweet room. Never guessing, of course, that in the false-bottomed trunk in the closetwere hidden vials of holy water, bulbs of garlic, and lots of very sharp, pointed stakes.
There was her picture of Xander and Will on the nightstand. She smiled faintly. There weren't two of Willow in the world, and Xander was likewise unclonable. Sweet friends. Good to her.
She heard talking and frowned slightly. Did her mom have company at this hour? Or was there something in this house that shouldn't be?
Moving with Slayer's reflexes, she jumped out of bed, put on her robe, and slipped a stake into her pocket. Stealthily, she hurried down the hall and headed for the stairs, pausing to assess any and all possible dangers.
She heard crying, heaving, bone-deep. She knew that kind of crying. Was...friends with it.
"Mom?" she called softly.
She hurried down the stairs, then passed from the front room into the kitchen.
In her pleated bathrobe, her hair frowsy from sleep, Joyce Summers stood facing Buffy. In her arms, a woman in a black raincoat sobbed desperately. As Buffy stood watching, the woman clung to Buffy's mom, barely able to stand.
"They'll find him, Anne," Joyce said. She lifted her eyes toward Buffy. Locked gazes with her. Buffy didn't know what to do. She stood awkwardly for a moment, then tiptoed out of the room and paused on the stairs.
"Joyce, he's so little. He's too little to run away. Something's happened to him. Something bad. I just know it. I know it!" The woman almost screamed. "Oh, my God, Timmy!"
Buffy was frozen to the spot. Guilt drenched her. There was no reason to feel guilty, she reminded herself. The boy who had been Timmy Stagnatowski had been dead before she staked his walking corpse. It was not this woman's child she had destroyed.
But she knew what had happened to him, and she could never tell his mother. Mrs. Stagnatowski would go to her grave wondering what had become of her happy little boy. Every night, she would wander to the window and look out, praying that he would run up the walkway. When the phone rang, she would jump. For the rest of her life.
Buffy could save her from that pain. She could stop the wondering right now.
Her heart thundering, she descended one stair. She was not supposed to tell anyone about the Hellmouth, about the terrors and dangers she fought to save them from. Would it be better for Mrs. Stagnatowski to know the truth? Would she even believe Buffy? Or would she assume -- as her mother once had -- that she was crazy?
"We'll put up some more flyers," Joyce said gently. "And I'll call Liz DeMarco at the shelter. If he comes in, they'll ask him to contact you."
"But what if he doesn't?" Mrs. Stagnatowski asked dully. "What if he doesn't understand how much we love him and miss him?"
Were they always missed, the ones who ran away? Buffy felt fresh tears welling in her eyes. With effort, she swallowed them down and stared into the distance, remembering the road and the way back home.
She looked at the panes in the front door.
The sun had risen.
It was time to go to school.
Buffy sprinted through a vicious downpour across the lawn of Sunnydale High, her laced ankleboots sliding on grass that had quickly become more mud than green. She muttered curses the whole way. Her Chinese embroidered blouse was spattered and clammy. Her long skirt, muddy at the hem.
Barely managing to keep hold of a bag filled with books she hadn't so much as glanced at in days, she wrenched open the front door to the school and squished inside. She ran her fingers through her ruined hair and started along the corridor toward the library.
She turned to see Willow and Xander coming toward her. Willow, of course, had come prepared with a hooded yellow slicker, while Xander's only concession to the weather was a battered baseball cap. Which might be good for keeping the rain off but really didn't do anything for him. His just wasn't a hat kind of head. He looked a little goofy in his typically oversize shirt, the sleeves hanging over his wrists, but that was standard Xander gear. She had pretty much decided it was a rebellion thing for him: Yeah, I'm a geek, so what?
"Good morning to the seriously umbrella-challenged girl clad in the latest fashion in spongewear," Xander teased, obviously having no notion that she had been equally harsh about his fashion challenge but hadn't felt the need to mention it.
Tired, frustrated, she glared at him. "Yes," she said. "I'm wet. Any other brilliant observations this morning? And by the way, the cap looks way past stupid."
"Ooh," Willow said gently. "Down, girl. Bad morning, huh?"
Buffy took a breath and tried to calm down. Xander was acting like he wasn't hurt, but she knew him better than that. She saw how his hand went halfway to the cap, as if he were about to take it off, then hang at his side, as if he'd rather not bring attention to it.
"And bad night, and bad everything," she admitted. "At least one of our recent runaways wasn't exactly a runaway. And Mom was less than pleased that I completely forgot her benefit last night." She couldn't tell them about the rest. It hurt too much.
"Running away," Willow said, sighing. "Sounds good to me."
Buffy paused, narrowing her eyes.
"No," she said bluntly. "Good it is not. Trust me on this one, Will."
Willow looked abashed. "Sorry, Buffy."
Xander turned to Willow and said, "Plus, you're a senior. Which, y'know, automatically means that running away would be kind of childish. Unless you were running away to join the circus, which would be cool. High wire, Will. You'd be good with that. No clowns, though."
"Clowns are evil," Willow noted, smiling a little.
"All of them," Xander confirmed, smiling back.
"So spill, Willow," Buffy demanded. "Otherwise I'm just going to keep complaining about my problems, and yours will be summarily ignored."
Willow shrugged, letting her hands flop loudly against her hips.
"My parents think Oz has no ambition."
Buffy and Xander stared at her, waiting for the rest.
"That's it," Willow added, raising her eyebrows. "They like him, y'know. Even though they want him to pa...