The Carton

Disclaimer: Mutant Enemy characters used without permission and not for profit.

"You gonna stare at the milk until it turns into yogurt?" Dawn asked.

Buffy stared.

"Buffy? Hello? Earth to Buffy?"

Buffy stared.

Dawn sighed, then looked at the quart carton, at the black-and-white print of a happy young girl, with the plaintive caption "Have you seen me?"

Joyce chose that moment to walk in. She poured a cup of coffee, split a muffin and dropped it into the toaster, and gently took the carton from her oldest daughter's hands.

She noticed a little bit of resistance - not much, just enough to know that Buffy had actually been holding onto the carton. Then she saw the expression on Buffy's face. "Buffy? Is everything okay, honey?"

"I saw her," Buffy whispered.

Joyce frowned, then looked at the carton. "Her? The one on the carton? You sure?"

Nod. "Last night."

"That's wonderful! I'm sure her parents will be thrilled to know she's still alive!" Joyce smiled, adjusting the scarf over her hair ... and then it clicked.

"She had fangs," Buffy said. "This innocent face that nobody would suspect, looking for shelter, until she got invited in and..."

"You mean you...?"

Buffy closed her eyes tight. "She'd already bitten one guy. I had to get her off his throat. Don't know if he's still alive."

Joyce shivered. "But ... she ... she was Dawn's age! Younger, even!"

"I know," Buffy answered miserably. "I know," she repeated, and blinked back tears.

Joyce stared at the picture, at the fine print underneath, with growing horror and determination. "We have to tell the parents. Or the police. Or somebody."

"And tell them what?" Buffy asked. She sniffled. "What do we say? 'Sorry, but your daughter got turned into a vampire? We can't find the body because it got turned to dust when I stabbed her with a splinter of wood?'" She gasped for breath, then sighed, "I hate it when they're children."

Dawn gulped. "Maybe we just say that we might have seen her."

Buffy shook her head. "That'd just give them hope."

Joyce put a hand on her daughter's shoulder. "I'll talk to Giles. I'm sure they've had to deal with that in the Watchers." She tousled Dawn's hair. "Come on, Dawn. Time for school."

Dawn grabbed the carton and poured a splash of milk into the bowl of cereal. She bolted down her breakfast, gulped down a glass of orange juice, and went off to grab her books. "Ready in a minute, Mom."

Joyce walked after her youngest, but Buffy caught her short: "Mom?"

"Yes, honey?"

"When I ... after Angel ... when I was ... did you consider...?"

Joyce shook her head. "It wouldn't have helped, Buffy. You ... you had to be ready to come back. And..." She picked up the carton once more. "This is for parents who don't know where their children have gone. And I ... from what Giles told me, I realized ... you could take care of yourself. And you'd come home when you were ready."

"It didn't stop the freaking, though," Buffy sighed.

"No. Just made it ... survivable."

Buffy looked up. "Mom, did I ever say I was sorry for the hell I put you through?"

Joyce smiled. "You didn't have to. Not once I really understood."

Buffy hugged her mom quickly. "I love you, Mom."

"I know, pumpkin."

Buffy poured the last of the milk into her coffee, then set the carton on the counter as a reminder to buy more.

The sun came into the kitchen, glancing off the face staring out from the paper.

It might have been a sixth- or seventh-grade class picture, or a studio portrait.

"Have you seen me?"