Banner by Aadler
(Untamed Tongue Mix)
Fandom(s): Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Word Count: 2,638 words
Original story: Tip of My Tongue
“I didn’t cry when my father died.”
Being a smart girl and lifelong friend, Willow could tell there was probably a punchline. “Because they didn’t tell you?”
“Looks like.” Buffy shook her head and leaned back on the wooden bench, staring at the ceiling.
“When Mom died …” She gave a vague laugh, almost of surprise. “It was so sudden, I didn’t know how to deal. But it feels like losing my dad took almost my entire life to happen. And you know the irony is, I hadn’t thought about him in years. Decades, even.”
“Ouch.” Willow shifted in her seat.
Even in the afternoon heat, the open porch of the sprawling Montana ranch was cool and pleasant. There hadn’t been another house for miles on their drive up from the highway. Buffy liked her solitude, but she was having a hard time imagining living alone in a place this isolated. Especially if you were as old as this guy.
“And it wasn’t only scary how much time had gone by,” she continued. “It was like I woke up one day and realized how much I’d forgotten about him. And most of it was good stuff. And in its place, there was this … murky sort of sentimental haze. Tucked way back in with all the chaos that was Sunnydale.”
Willow merely nodded. They’d shared much of their formative lives as teenagers and young adults, helping each other survive in that literal hellhole.
“At least the figure skating was still there. But some of the worst memories? I knew they weren’t even real. All that rejection, that disappointment — it was just another nightmare.” Buffy’s face crinkled with confusion. “I was starting to feel like Dawn.”
She sighed and stared out over the open range, flat as far as her eyes could see. And that was a fur piece. As they said around these parts.
“Even if he deserved all the resentment I could throw at him — and more — I don’t want to feel that way.” Buffy was frowning as she looked over at Willow again. “I want to understand him. For there to be more than just this — pursuit of happiness. One big unending stream of jet-setting, and secretaries that take dictation.”
“What if that’s all there is?” Willow’s cynicism was clear, but it was all in her voice. On her face was nothing but understanding.
“After all this.” Buffy shook her head. “After Riley helped set this whole thing up.”
“So?” Willow’s frown only made her more closely resemble the resentful teen she had once been. “You really think your dad worked for the Initiative or something?”
“I don’t know.” Buffy laid it out for her friend, a stark and simple fact. “That’s why we’re here.”
“It’s not too late,” Willow said. Her fingers rolled across the smooth wooden protrusion at the top of her cane as she gazed hopefully at her friend. “We could still go visit the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.”
“Will, we’ve been through this.” Buffy’s voice was gentle, not in the least argumentative. “What if it was your dad? Could you just walk away?”
“Why not?” Willow’s shrug, like her smile, was only on the right side of her body. “Mine did.”
“I know.” Buffy gave Willow’s knee a squeeze. It felt too bony under the long woolen skirt. “So you know how important this is. And please don’t take it out on Riley.”
“I won’t.” Willow rolled her eye. “I’ll just pretend to.”
“Fair enough.” Buffy leaned in for a hug. Willow’s eyes were clouded and grey as they separated.
It was perfect timing as the screen door swung open. The nurse was almost their age, but a good deal taller and more muscular. Her skin was light brown, her curling hair close-cropped. While her smile seemed warm and genuine, Buffy didn’t fail to miss the bulge of a concealed weapon under the crisply starched lines of her uniform.
“He’s out back.” The nurse pointed around the side of the house. “Don’t keep him too long.”
“Thank you.” Buffy took a deep breath, looking over at Willow. “Ready?”
“I was less ready for you getting married.” Willow waved away Buffy’s helping hand, hoisting herself upright with the help of the cane. She’d started using color in her hair a few years ago, telling everyone she’d go grey when she was darn good and ready.
“You’ve been with me through every bad relationship.” Buffy rose, ignoring the twinge in her spine. “Not to mention the good ones.”
At least Willow allowed her to link arms before they carefully climbed down the steps. The side yard was starting to grow tall, more of a wild field of grassland. It gave Buffy something to think about besides her own aches and pains. Her back always acted up on humid days, and she didn’t dare complain unless she wanted to risk ten kinds of mockery from Faith. Besides, all of them had managed to keep going longer than they ever thought possible. And they all had their little aches and pains. Some less little than others.
The general saw them coming from his bamboo chair, and raised his cane in greeting. Tufts of hair stuck out from beneath his cap, so far toward the light end of the spectrum they were almost transparent; his cableknit sweater appeared the same, near blinding in its purity. Even without the use of his legs, the former muscle mass in his upper body, Buffy could see echoes of the man who had once been.
“Miss Summers.” His voice was deeper than she expected. Faded blue eyes sparkled from within the deepset folds of his wrinkled smile. “I’m honored.”
In that moment, Buffy found herself thrown. Could it be —?
“Cat got your tongue?” The elder’s amusement didn’t mask the slight cough as he shifted in his seat.
“I’m sorry.” Buffy shook her head. “For just a second — I thought you were my dad.”
“I’d be flattered.” A kindly chuckle attested to the veracity of this statement. “But I’m just the guy breaking protocol.”
“You said you had something.” Willow stepped forward, regal as ever despite her obvious infirmity. “And we shouldn’t stay long.”
“Oh, you can ignore her.” The general waved away their concerns, reaching over the side of his chair. “I know I do.”
Buffy was feeling more than a bit awkward, with some regret that she hadn’t gone to more trouble dressing up. But all petty fashion concerns vanished in less than a heartbeat as her trembling fingers took hold of the outstretched photograph. Even at her advanced state of maturity — to put a fine euphemism on it — the unmistakable sight of the picture was nearly enough to cause an immediate violent reaction. She could hear a slight inhalation from Willow as she held it up for them both to see.
“Is this real?” Buffy looked over at the general. Willow was frowning as she stared at the photo; squinting over her glasses, trying to come up with some rational explanation.
“It’s real.” The general’s rheumy gaze was sharpened by the narrowing of his eyes.
“I’m not doubting you,” Buffy said. “But — my assurances aside, I’m sure you’ll admit. Something like this —”
“That’s her, all right.” Willow nodded, looking more profoundly disturbed than Buffy had seen the witch in years. “And I never met your dad, so I couldn’t say. But …” Her cheeks puffed slowly outward as she gave grudging voice to her admission. “It sure looks like it.”
It wasn’t so much the identities of the two individuals depicted in the photograph: The father she’d thought forever lost; the insane immortal vampire who had tried to kill Buffy and the rest of the gang more than once. Moreso the mere fact of these two actually being together, in the same frame. Let alone their inexplicable but obvious and mutual affection for one another.
“That’s no thrall.” Willow shook her head as her fingers trailed over the brittle plastic with its chemical coating. “I can tell that much. But it’s too faded.”
Buffy had picked up enough knowledge of her best friend’s craft over the years to infer a great deal from a few words. It was plain that Willow wasn’t merely referring to the photograph.
She looked over at the general, who was keenly observing them and their perusal of his offering.
“Is there anything you can tell us?” Buffy took a chance and sank to the ground, feeling her knees cry out with relief. “Do you know when it was taken?”
“Afraid not.” The general’s scowl was the look of a man unaccustomed to being thwarted. “Not an easy scheme to follow. Even if they had left much of a paper trail.”
“You’re saying —” Buffy found it almost as hard to swallow as she did to speak out loud. “My dad was some kind of secret agent?”
“Obviously, I couldn’t say.” The general’s gnarled hands trembled slightly as he gripped the arms of his chair, as though he were attempting to rise. The nod seemed to confirm his statement. “But if I had to — I’d say he was a chef.”
“A chef,” Buffy echoed, turning to Willow. “That’s a new one. Did Riley say anything about —”
But Willow was watching the general like a one-eyed hawk. “Culinary Institute of America?”
The general shrugged, and turned his face to the sky.
“I appreciate what you’ve done here.” Buffy forced herself back to her feet before her behind could take root in the soil. “Very much. But we’ve taken enough of your time.”
Willow held onto the photo all the way back to their rental car, parked next to the barn. It wasn’t until she was once more behind the wheel that Buffy looked over to see Willow settling back in her seat. The witch’s grimace faded until her features were serene and still.
“Go ahead.” Willow’s fingers still held the picture as her eyes slowly drifted shut. “Don’t mind me.”
“Whatever you need,” Buffy replied. She was trying to navigate in reverse the long and winding dirt road that led up to the house. There was more than enough daylight to make it back, but it was obvious that neither of them were in any hurry. The exit that would take them back to the interstate was at least ten minutes away, with plenty of turns between. No rest for aching feet via the magic of cruise control.
“Excuse me?” Buffy kept her eyes on the road. Willow hadn’t moved, but she sounded perfectly awake.
“You’ve been there, done that.” Willow’s better hand was resting atop the picture in her lap. “Warren and his pals.”
Buffy didn’t bother with an affirmation. Will would get to the point eventually.
“What do you think would have happened if you hadn’t broken free?” Willow’s voice was more relaxed, less brittle with deep and long-suffering hurt. “How long do you think you could last? Without going nuts, or keeling over?”
“Then I think Groundhog Day is a misnomer.” Buffy was finding herself on more comfortable ground. “That would imply that a person can die and everything just resets the next day.”
“Assume physical reality,” Willow said. “And no time travel.”
“I don’t like where this is going —”
“Now maybe when Jonathan, or whoever — when they died, the spell over you would be broken. But if someone had a team of mages all shoring each other up …” A flickered grimace marred the pristine calm of Willow’s brow, as Buffy glanced over.
“They could keep a person trapped.” Buffy focused on not sinking her right foot through the floor of the car. “Until their body gave out.”
“Assuming their goal wasn’t to drive him insane —” Willow’s sarcastic chuckle had a well-honed sinister edge. “All they would need would be a way to keep his mind intact. Some sort of narrative he could hold onto.”
“Tell me a story,” Buffy murmured.
It still sounded like some ridiculous fairytale. The idea that her father had been a CIA agent would make a beggar of anyone’s imagination. But the little more that Willow could glean from the fading aura had nothing to do with his secret career.
The photograph was already losing its image. The clear flesh tones were slowly turning sepia, the dark background blossoming with flowers of what looked like falling snow. Willow said it was inevitable, accelerated by her own readings on a quantum level, however delicate. Buffy thought for a moment about telling her to stop. She continued to stare at the pair of fading smiles, trying to sear them irrevocably into her memory.
“Not a day went by that he didn’t think of you.” Willow’s breathing was slightly better now that she was tucked in. It had been a long trip.
“You’re not just saying that.” After all this time, Buffy thought she knew better. Still, it was a monumental leap. It made her wonder what Faith would think.
“I’d only lie to make you feel better if you were on your deathbed.” Willow’s good eye fluttered open momentarily, taking in the sight of Buffy as she sat by the side of the bed. “And you look pretty healthy to me.”
She watched for a time, just in case. But Willow soon drifted off to sleep, still clutching the photograph. Buffy didn’t turn on the lamp. Her aging sight was still better after dark than someone half her age. She could see the thin lines and shading that remained, now barely visible.
It shouldn’t feel this bizarre to imagine her father as someone needing emotional support. It felt more bizarre, somehow, than the notion of him being James Bond. Even a George Lazenby. And the most nonsensical notion was the idea of a soulless vampire being the source of his comfort. The person with which he had found solace, over and over. Until his brain burned out.
If Willow was right, Dru had been the only thing keeping Hank from a complete breakdown. From dying in misery and hopeless confusion, a broken empty husk of a man.
She leaned down and pressed her lips to her friend’s forehead. Willow murmured and shifted under the comforter.
It was not quite midnight in London. And Giles was hardly sleeping at all these days. Buffy was just grateful he was still lucid, and not in too much pain.
As always, he would have a great deal to say.
By sunrise, the photograph had completely faded. The blank plastic was more brittle than ever, nearly crumbling when Buffy tried to pick it up. Willow was devastated enough to promise a lifetime of free cookies on demand.
“I already have that.” Buffy walked over and drew open the curtains, letting in a flood of sunlight. “Mostly free, anyway.”
“I’m really —”
“I know.” Buffy nodded at the pills laid out on the table by the side of the bed. “You gave me fair warning.”
It was strange, to say the least. If Hank had remained part of her life, even after losing her mother, she might have been doing this for him right now. Just out of sheer filial piety.
“You are a harsh mistress.” But Willow dutifully sat up to begin the ever slower and more laborious process of medication. Buffy noted with approval that her hands weren’t shaking as badly today.
“Is Dawn still on the six o’clock flight?”
“Oh yeah.” Buffy set the glass of water down on the table, then sat with Willow’s cane resting on top of her legs, patiently waiting. “And all three of the kids.”
“Just what we need,” Willow muttered, in between pills. “All that youthful energy.”
“I know.” Buffy chuckled and leaned over to fluff her pillow. “Isn’t it great?”
Happy Father’s Day, she thought.
For the first time in forever, it didn’t feel like a punchline.
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