My daughters think they can hide everything from me.

Well, Dawn thinks she can. She thinks she has so many secrets, so many mysteries -- I haven't got the heart to remind her that she's fourteen and I'm her mother. I can read her like a book.

Buffy.... I admit it. There were years there when I had no idea what was going on in Buffy's head. I remember staring at her across the dinner table, past Dawn's chatter, and trying to see into her, to see through her. Trying to figure out where my happy little girl had gone. I told myself she was quiet because of the divorce, she was tired because she'd been studying, and she slumped in her chair some nights just... because she's a teenager.

I was wrong. I convinced myself there was nothing to see, so I didn't see what I should have. Giles and I have talked about it a little, the few times we've managed to hold a conversation; he's told me more than once not to blame myself and I try to believe he's right. When I'm not trying to blame him....

Still, knowing is a bigger relief than I can say. Not that I'm happy that my elder daughter runs around trying to find something bigger and badder to fight every night; I'm not, believe me. But knowing about the Slaying, the demons, what little she'll tell me about Angel.... I can read her face again.

I'm sure she'd be miserable if she knew how easily I see through her airy reassurances. "No, Mom, there's no problem. Just another boring night out on patrol." Which, in Slayer-speak, translates to "The world may end tonight, Mom, but you can't do anything to help, so go watch some soaps until I figure out how to stop it. Or die trying, which is kinda more likely."

I wonder sometimes what it will be like when Dawn settles into puberty. If boys will become important, and if she'll start to enjoy shopping for something other than books, and if she'll care if she's elected Homecoming Queen or not. If she'll run to tell me when she falls in love, or hide it away inside herself like a terrible secret, like her sister had to. I wonder what it will be like to raise a normal daughter.

Buffy watches me and Dawn these days, with the same kind of shadows she had in her eyes a few years ago -- when she thought she was going to die fighting the Master (whoever he was), when Angel became evil, when Faith betrayed her. These shadows are slightly different -- she's afraid for us, not for herself -- but I recognize them. She tries so hard not to let me see her struggle, and I try to give her the space she needs to keep up the facade on nights like this.

Right now, Buffy's strength lies in being strong for everyone else. For me. So I'll stay up here and pack and I'll pretend I don't know she's out on the back porch crying. I'll go out after a while, armed with hot chocolate, and I'll pretend we're both out there to look at the stars. We'll talk about nothing, and I'll pretend I don't see the dried tears on her cheeks.

I've gotten very good at pretending.

I wish I could believe those shadows are all just because I'm sick, but I gave up willful blindness almost three years ago. I'm the mother of the Slayer and the mother of Dawn, and I can't afford to fool myself anymore.

I do see. And I'm afraid.

Not for myself, although I'm not exactly happy about whatever it is that's happening to me. No, I'm afraid for Dawn -- for whatever it is that makes Buffy watch her with eagle eyes, as if she's terrified to leave Dawn for an instant, or she'll disappear. She thinks I don't see it, that I'm too occupied with being sick to notice that Dawn has suddenly gone from being the bane of Buffy's existence to the focus of her life.

And I'm afraid for Buffy, for the responsibilities that seem to weigh her down more every day. For this town, for me, for her sister... for the world. She carries more on her shoulders than any child should have to and, no matter how old she gets, Buffy will always be my child. And I pray I won't have to leave her to bear those responsibilities alone. Again.

The designated 'space' time passes. I finish packing, boil the water, fix a cheerful smile on my face and open the back door, mugs in hand.

I'm not *quite* surprised when I find that she's not alone. She and her friends are so close lately, I half-expect Giles or Willow or the Xander/Anya collective to show up whenever Buffy is upset, as if she sends out some sort of signal to them. They always seem to know.

But it's not Giles or Willow who looks up from beside Buffy when the door opens, who bolts to his feet when he sees my face. It's Spike.

Now, Buffy and Angel filled me in on Spike, and I remember our first meeting very well, believe me. Standing over a fright-masked man with bleached blond hair, and threatening him with an ax as he threatens your daughter tends to stick with you. But, somehow, I've never quite been able to reconcile that memory with the man who went along with Buffy's ridiculous rock-band lies the night it all went to hell. I can't reconcile the phrase 'evil killer of Slayers' with the pathetic young man who slumped in my kitchen a few months later and sobbed over the loss of a woman who clearly wasn't good enough for him. And it's that second man, the one who likes marshmallows in his hot chocolate, who's sitting out in the dark with my daughter tonight.

Which doesn't mean that I'm stupid, or careless; I stay inside the open door. "Hello, Spike. It's... nice to see you again."

"Joyce." Spike is standing on two steps, shifting his weight uncomfortably and obviously ready to run for it. Buffy is still sitting next to him, as if she's too tired to get up, hastily trying to shift her tear-streaked face into a smile as she looks at me.

I stare at them in bemusement, that old lecture on 'people we shouldn't trust' running through my head again. The last I'd heard, Spike topped that list. "Aren't you two supposed to be, ah, fighting?"

Buffy tries to answer, has to stop to clear her throat, and looks appalled at the break in her 'everything's fine' routine. "Kind of. Yeah. But we're... not."

She slants a look at Spike, one which suggests she's as confused by that as I am, maybe more. He shrugs and shifts his weight again, and his foot kicks something heavy on the porch next to him. It's a shotgun. I stare at it for a second, he changes feet again and tries to kick it behind him, and I decide that I just don't want to know.

"Hot chocolate, anyone?"

Buffy looks up at Spike, glaring a warning. Which is probably why he gives another one of those defiant 'what the hell' shrugs, and accepts one of the mugs I hold out, taking a quick sip. "Thanks."

*I* could have told her he'd do that. Buffy shakes her head slowly, her eyes bewildered, but accepts the second mug when I hold it out to her. She doesn't drink; she just holds it cupped in her hands below her chin, the steam warming her face.

I look at my daughter, huddled on the steps in poorly-hidden misery. I look at Spike, visibly torn between hovering over Buffy, keeping his distance from me, and vaulting off the porch and heading for the hills. And I step the rest of the way outside, letting the door swing shut behind me. Spike's eyebrows go up as he takes another swig of his chocolate, watching me with something that is either admiration of my courage, or amazement at my stupidity. I have no intention of asking which.

Whichever, he leans back against the railing, staring intently at the bottom of his mug; I mirror him, leaning against the railing next to Buffy. Which places her between him and me, to her very-poorly-concealed relief. No one seems to want to talk -- Spike, in fact, seems to be drinking as quickly as possible so he can escape -- and the silence gets awkward quickly.

"So, Spike." He jolts at my voice, spilling his chocolate on his hand, and swears under his breath. Buffy rolls her eyes. I hide a smile, suspecting that Spike wouldn't appreciate it. "What, ah, brings you by at this time of night?"

He shrugs with studied casualness and carefully doesn't look at the shotgun, my daughter, or me. "Just in the neighborhood."

"Ah." I nod as if that means something, which, frankly, it doesn't. My head is starting to hurt again, and there are all kinds of things happening here that I don't understand. I straighten and head back for the door. "Well, I need to get myself some hot chocolate. Spike, would you like to--"


Buffy's eyes are wide and appalled as she stares up at me; it's a lot better than Catatonic Buffy or Cheerful-If-It-Kills-Me Buffy. I look back with wide eyes, as if I'd forget again about asking vampires in. As Dawn would say, not! "I was going to ask if your friend wanted to have more hot chocolate."

"Oh." Buffy subsides in embarrassment, adding in a mutter, "And he's not my friend."

It's Spike's turn to snort with laughter, earning him another glare from Buffy while I try to hide another smile. She's got that look in her eyes that means she's about to start hunting for a stake. He can read the signs; he gulps the rest of his chocolate and leaves the mug balancing precariously on the railing. "I'm gone. Got places to go, things to do...."

"People to kill," Buffy finishes sourly.

He lifts his eyebrows and smiles in practiced innocence, and is about as effective at the expression as Dawn when she's guilty as sin. "Slayer. I'm wounded."

"Not yet."

He snickers again and starts down the steps; Buffy's voice stops him before he gets more than halfway to the ground. "Spike."

He swings around to look at her, and his face is.... well. I know that expression, and I never wanted to see another vampire aiming it at my daughter -- particularly not one whose name comes from railroad spikes and torture, no matter how many marshmallows he likes in his hot chocolate. Their eyes meet and hold for a long, long moment; Buffy's eyes turn bewildered again and she opens her mouth to say something. Then she closes it, tightening her lips and gesturing curtly with her head towards the floor of the porch.

Spike follows the motion to the shotgun and his face shuts down again, his eyes flattening as attitude replaces emotion. "Right." He bends and snags the shotgun in one motion (and thank you God, it's his and not Buffy's. I'm reluctantly used to crossbows, I *refuse* to adjust to guns). Then he jumps off the porch and strides out into the night, his trenchcoat billowing behind him. He doesn't say good night, and he doesn't look back.

When he's gone, I leave the railing, and settle down on the steps next to Buffy. "Do I want to know what that was about?" I ask quietly.

Buffy shakes her head, still staring after Spike. "*I* don't know what that was about," she answers, irritation warring with helpless confusion on her face. "And you know what -- I'm too freaked to care. I'm just going to sit here and pretend that whole weird little interlude never happened."

"Fair enough." I reach over and take her untouched mug from her hands, sipping at the still-hot chocolate and staring up at the stars. That's one of the things I've always liked about Sunnydale -- it's a small enough city that you can see the stars at night. Of course, that's only if you're out at night, which is a bad idea in Sunnydale, but you get my point.

I don't hear her move, just feel the weight of her head coming to rest on my shoulder, the brush of her hair against my cheek as she leans on me. I put my arm around her shoulders, cradling her against me. "It's going to be all right, baby," I whisper softly. She sniffles once, and snuggles in closer, and I tighten my arm around her.

Behind us, the door opens softly and Dawn's voice drifts out on the air. "Mom? Buffy?"

"Yes, honey?" I answer, without looking away from the stars.

Dawn steps outside and shuffles down the steps, her hands tucked deep in her pockets and her shoulders hunched. "Nothing," she says quietly. "I just... I wondered where you guys were. We're not supposed to be outside at night."

"I know. We'll go in soon." I smile up at her and offer the mug. She takes it carefully, and sits down at my feet, leaning her head sideways against my knees. I let my free hand drift over her hair, smoothing it rhythmically as Buffy nestles her cheek further into my shoulder. I wish I could take away all the confusion, all the pain... make it all better. But the most important thing I learned that night, the night I found out my daughter is a Slayer, is how many things I *can't* do.

But I can do this one thing. I can go to the hospital and I can take their tests and I can do whatever it is they want me to do to beat this whateveritis, because I can't leave my girls alone.

Not when Dawn clings to me like a limpet when I tuck her a little while later. Not when Buffy watches me sing her sister to sleep, her eyes trying to be optimistic and responsible and adult, and all I can see is the terrified little girl crying behind them.

When both of them are either asleep or pretending to be, I wander back out the porch, staying close to the door, and stare back out at the stars. For some reason, my thoughts drift back to Spike and I wonder whatever happened with that girl he was so broken-hearted over the last time I saw him. I wonder if he still hurts for her. And I wonder if he ever had a mother who hurt for him, who mourned when he... died.

The funny thing is, his strange little visit may have 'freaked' Buffy, but it's almost soothing to me. I know, somewhere in my heart, that if the worst happens -- if they find the worst in my head tomorrow, something I can't fight -- my daughters won't be on their own. No matter how hard it is to remember that when I'm staring out at the darkness, alone... I do know.

But Spike's visit made me believe -- really believe. Buffy will take care of Dawn, and Giles will dedicate his life to taking care of both of them. Xander, Willow, Tara and Anya.... they'll all help my girls through whatever comes next. And after seeing Spike's face tonight, I think even he'd be there, in spite of himself.

How's that for a comforting thought?

I laugh at myself, and pick up Spike's mug from the railing where he left it, then walk back inside, locking the door behind me. Tomorrow is going to come all too soon, and I have to be ready....

"Dawn! You're supposed to be in bed, *not* poking around in my room!"

"Mom! She threw a pillow at me!"

"That's not all I'm gonna throw!"

...*After* I referee World War III.

I laugh again, shaking my head as I start up the stairs to my girls and stopping in my room to grab some ammunition of my own.

The hell with tomorrow; it can take care of itself.



And now I'm channeling Joyce. The Summers women seem intent on taking over my brain. You! Dawn! Outta here!!!