Seven Stages to Clarity Chapter 3

This entry is part 3 of 9 of the story Seven Stages to Clarity

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Chapter 3
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A/N “Listening To Fear” (written by Jane Espenson)

Joyce was going stir crazy. ‘Or maybe that was just crazy,’ she worried. The monster in her own head was starting to roar. Holding her two girls close to her and trying to reassure them while trying to keep grounded in reality was becoming an issue. ‘Maybe if I were home it would be easier.’

Dr. Kriegal dropped by to see how his soon-to-be patient was holding up. ‘Such a sad thing to see a woman so young and vibrant stricken this way, and with two such lovely daughters to raise as well!’ “So!” he put on his most cheerful and uplifting smile, “How are the staff treating you ladies?”

“Fine, Doctor.” Joyce smiled at Dawn, who was still playing with her lime jello from the dinner food tray.

“We’ve scheduled your surgery for the day after tomorrow at 10 a.m.. That should let you get a bit of rest and let your girls pamper you a bit before we get down to business.”

Joyce looked around a bit wide-eyed and tried not to panic. “I’m really going to be a basket case cooped up here until then. I have so much to arrange.” She turned pleading eyes on the doctor.

“You shouldn’t overexert yourself. We want you fresh when we go to work on that tumor,” he cautioned.

“Oh nothing physical, Doctor. I just have a few things I need to put together–you know, for insurance and so on.” She really needed to get out of there.

“I would still prefer you rest. The paperwork can wait until after you’re back to yourself again. I’m sure your daughters would agree?” He looked pointedly at Buffy in an unspoken bid for support.

“Be that as it may… I really would rather go home and check back in for the surgery. I promise to be a good girl and rest.” Joyce felt like crying in desperation. “I need to be around my family, my home.” What she needed was to feel in some control of her life again.

Buffy really couldn’t decide who made the best case, but it was always better to side with family. “I could take care of anything Mom needs if you let her come home.”

The doctor looked skeptical but understanding. Joyce Summers wasn’t the first patient to want to hoof it as far away as possible and for as long as possible. The daughter did look capable and concerned though. “You’d have to be instructed in the administering of her medication and a long list of do’s and don’ts,” he warned.

“I can do lists,” Buffy promised and Dawn chimed in that she could as well.

The doctor sighed and gave in. “Alright. I’ll see to the arrangements and come back to go over the orders when we’re ready to discharge you.” He gave his patient a stern look. “I mean it, missy, no rowdiness and no misbehavior from you.” He softened his warning with a warm smile.

“Yes, sir, I’ll be good as gold.” Joyce held her fingers in the traditional Girl Scout sign. “Scouts honor! And I really was a Girl Scout once upon a time.”

They all laughed and the doctor took his leave.

“Buffy, what about your patrol?” Much as she liked the idea of Buffy not being at risk for a while, she knew how important Slaying was in keeping the evil around them at bay.

“Riley and the gang have got it covered, Mom, so no worries. You’ve got me all to yourself, at least until after you’re home for good.” She smiled reassuringly at her mother, wondering fleetingly if she should have also asked Spike to tag along as extra muscle.

“You know,” Joyce said as if she had read Buffy’s mind, “Spike said he’d be happy to help out any time we needed him.”

“Like we’d ever need him!” Buffy huffed.

“Buffy Anne! You know that Spike has been helpful in the past. Why, just the other day didn’t you say he had tried to help you learn what you might need to stay alive longer?” Joyce couldn’t understand why Buffy seemed so hostile to Spike given her history of teaming up with the vampire when facing her worst enemies. Why, he had even helped out before he was chipped, when Buffy had to face Angel to save the world!

Buffy sighed in frustration. She knew that Spike and her mother had some weird and totally wrong friendship, but that was between them, not her and Spike.

“He’s strong and a good fighter; you’ve said so yourself. You said he was almost as good as you. Besides, he enjoys slaying nearly as much as you do.” Really, if Joyce thought about it Spike might be the best partner Buffy could have in doing her duty. He’d be more likely to keep her from an early grave than any other option available and that made him ideal in her mind. “You really should try to get to know him, honey. He can be very sweet.”

Buffy snorted.

“He can. He’s been helpful to me, a good friend. He has also been trying really hard to change, be good.”

“He’s chipped, Mom. That doesn’t mean good.”

“The chip only keeps him from hunting and killing people.” Joyce bit her lip. There was the fly in the ointment: no way around the fact that Spike had been a killer for a long time. But it was true that he was changing, she had seen it. He merely needed some encouragement and a chance to relearn what it meant to be human.

“And that’s why I let him remain undusty,” Buffy nodded.

“But it’s more than that. You need to pay attention. You never know when you might need him as an ally, as a friend one day.” Joyce would be willing to befriend the devil himself if it bought Buffy one extra day to her life, one less painful encounter on patrol. “Surely Mr. Giles has trained you to use all the weapons you have available?”

“Yeah, but what’s that got to do with Spike?”

“Actually both Spike and Anya seem to be underused by all of you. They are both quite old and have seen and learned a lot over the years. Anya may not be a demon now, but she’s seen eons worth of information! She must be more informed than whole shelves of those books Rupert is always referring to.”

Buffy looked startled, clearly she hadn’t given Anya any more thought than she had Spike.

“Really, dear, they both have been alive a very long time under dangerous circumstances. I think they might have a lot to offer if you would only treat them the same way you do your other friends.” Pain shot through her temple as yet another headache made itself known.

Buffy noted the slight grimace that indicated another headache looming on the horizon. It would be better to get her mom home and tucked in before it began to rage. She offered up a prayer that the Doctor would snap to it quickly. “We’ll get you out of here as soon as the doctor comes back with all those papers hospitals love to generate.”

Joyce shot her a fierce growl and narrowed her eyes. “I’d rip it in half and stick it in bed with me!”

Buffy reached a shaking hand out to try to calm her mother. “Mom?” Dawn looked both startled and more than a bit frightened.

Joyce blinked, clearly confused and not aware of her outburst. “You know, I think I might take a short nap while we wait.”

Buffy motioned for Dawn to join her in the hallway. “We’ll be right outside if you need us.”
Dawn was shaking and shooting nervous glances into her mother’s room. “What was she talking about? I mean, that was weird to a mega power.”

Buffy slipped an arm around her little sister and began to walk a short way from the opened door. “I’m sorry, the doctor told me and I should have told you. The thing that’s pressing on her brain–,”

“The tumor you mean,” Dawn broke in. Really, she wasn’t a baby!

“Yeah, the tumor. Sometimes it might make her say weird things.”

“Does she know she’s saying them?”

“I don’t think so. It’s sort of like a flash, you know.” Buffy wished she could be sure of anything. “You saw her just seconds after and she was perfectly normal.”

“So after the surgery she’ll be back to being just Mom?” Dawn sounded tiny and young.

“Yup,” Buffy crossed her fingers, “No tumor, no pressing and no headaches. Mom’ll be normal all the time. Back to giving us lectures and grounding you.”

“Buffy, I’m scared.”

‘Me too.’ Some things were better left unsaid.

~*~

Giles and the Scoobies were breathless and on an adrenaline roller coaster. It seemed that the vamps and demons had all gotten word that the Slayer was out of action and decided to come out to play. There had been far too many near misses for Giles’ liking. They were woefully out of practice. It was as bad as that horrific summer when Buffy disappeared and they had tried to hold down the fort and hold back the stream of evil always gushing from the Hellmouth.

“So…,” Xander dared give voice to what they all wondered. “Wonder where Riley is? He was supposed to meet up with us before patrol and my bruised but still manly and virile body is kinda wishing he had turned up.”

“I was there when Buffy asked him,” Willow offered. “I don’t know why he didn’t come. Maybe something important came up, you know, with Buffy and Joyce and the hospital?”

Giles shrugged. He didn’t want to destroy their illusions, but he had noted a lack of dedication from Riley Finn of late that was disconcerting. “Perhaps we should brush up on our own skills rather than count on his assistance. As Willow pointed out, he does have other obligations. I’m sure he had his reasons not to join us.” The boy was proving to be a singular disappointment.

“Yeah, and…hey! I completely dusted two vamps all by myself!” Willow was proud of her accomplishment, even though it had scared her witless while it was happening. “Go me!”

“Yup, go you and now we all go,” Xander teased and took Anya’s arm, leading them all from the cemetery.

~*~

Riley sank closer to the vampire who was blissfully sucking on his arm. She wasn’t much to look at. In fact, he would rather not look at her at all and just pretend all those feelings were coming some other way. Feeling her pull on his very life essence as if he alone provided for her did something powerful to him. It was addictive, seductive. Not that he wanted sex with her. She was a vampire after all, and Riley Finn didn’t get off with things!

The vampire purred in pleasure and resumed her feeding. She squirmed suggestively, clearly getting more than a meal from the relationship. If Riley were to tell the truth, he could feel the pull on his blood all the way to his dick. It was almost like oral sex without the orgasm. He was the center of her entire concentration, the most important being in the whole world to this one vampire as long as she was feeding on him. It was wonderful!

He’d stumbled onto the warehouse with its vamp whores a few weeks before and nearly burned it to the ground. He’d been fascinated at the idea of Vampires feeding without killing and victims offering themselves up for the taking. He had to see why for himself. Now he understood. Now he was a regular.

When Buffy was still his, when she wanted him as much as he wanted her, he hadn’t needed anything like this perversion. He would never have slid this far. He knew he shouldn’t blame Buffy, and he didn’t really. No, he really didn’t! It was just that a man had needs.

~*~

Willow spotted the meteorite first. She and Tara had been playing a game of “name the constellations” when it appeared out of the eastern sky and streaked to the ground not far from the rooftop where they lay.

By the time the gang had all been summoned and Riley finally answered the call to join them, whatever had been in the hollow casing had long fled, leaving a corpse in its wake.

Riley grinned at Xander, ready for action. He was a satisfied man, once more in his element leading the good people into battle. “I’m glad you called me in on this.” Funny how blood loss seemed to increase his energy, his clarity.

Xander raised an eyebrow. He was still miffed at Riley’s absence earlier. “Glad you answered.” If he had been expecting either a sincere apology or an explanation, he was to be disappointed.

“Oh, yeah, I’m sorry I missed that. I heard you had some fun.” Riley barely looked at any of them.

Xander liked, even admired, the guy, but right now he’d love to smack him a good one! “Oh, yeah, fun was had by all. Also frolic, merriment, near dismemberment and all kinds of near-death hijinks.”

The sarcasm didn’t even register with Riley, nor the veiled criticism. He was a man on a mission. He had already mentally dismissed the group of civilians and was thinking of who to call first.

The corpse was human and its condition was chilling in appearances and implication.

“So who votes research?” Xander was grossed out at the dead body, more than a bit frightened at the idea of invaders from space and still aching from the earlier patrol.

Everyone except Riley raised their hands and agreed their best line of defense likely rested between the dusty covers of heavy tomes.

“Yeah, you guys go on and do that and I’ll poke around here some more, gather samples, examine the body some more. There might be other cases like this and you are all used to looking for needles in haystacks.” His words were clearly intended to soothe any still hurting egos. “I’m just not great at research. I do like a good crime scene though.”

Giles offered to help if needed, but Riley assured him he had it covered. “Call me if you learn anything.”

“You got it,” Willow promised. “Why is it I don’t think it’ll be a cute bug-eyed alien who likes to play dress up with little girls and eat Reese’s Pieces?”

“It’s never one of those kind in real life, is it?” Tara agreed with a nod.

“As long as it isn’t fluffy with a cotton tail,” Anya shuddered.

“I don’t think anything fuzzy did that to the poor dead man,” Tara offered.

“Don’t be so sure,” Anya replied.

Riley didn’t wait long after they left to make his call for backup. It was like old times, only better equipped.

The helicopter arrived mere minutes after the call. Obviously, the Initiative was a bit less than cemented over and not that far away from Sunnydale, in spite of the political assurances otherwise. Good thing Giles had already vacated the area.

“Major Ellis.” The black clad officer offered Riley his hand. “I’m in charge of this op. What’s the status? Just one civilian casualty?” He started to kneel at the side of the dead man.

“I wouldn’t touch that stuff in his mouth if I were you. It’s messy, some kind of protein alkaloid.” Riley was in his element.

They all looked at the vial that Finn had collected.

“This fit the profile of any Sub-T you’re familiar with?” Ellis knew Riley’s background from the briefing during flight.

“Not SUB terrestrial, Major, EXTRA terrestrial,” He pointed to the trench and the hollow device that had made it. “It came out of that.”

“Alright,” Ellis said, nonplussed. “Set the trackers for a protein signature.”

“The alkaloid seems to be breaking down at an accelerated rate, so we may lose the trail quickly.” Riley offered another plan. “This thing came from space, so there’s gotta be some radiation. There shouldn’t be too much background gamma noise out here.”

Ellis was impressed. “Excellent, soldier! We have Geiger counters in the packs. Gentlemen, break ‘em out.”

~*~

Getting their mother home wasn’t as difficult as Buffy had feared. The doctor’s instructions were pretty clear and her mom only had a couple more outbursts of the crazy. It hadn’t helped that the last blast from Joyce had been to pull away from Dawn and yell at her to keep away. Being called a thing, a shadow, by her own mother had to sting, even if mom was ill. ‘Poor kid.’

There had also been a mental patient who accosted Dawn as they were checking out. He too had called her a thing and it clearly rattled the girl. Keeping the truth from her little sister wasn’t as easy as it had sounded when she and Giles had decided it was for the best.

Somewhere in the house, evil lurked. Buffy was too preoccupied by worry to even register its presence as she gave into the tears. Spike lurked too, but Buffy was as unaware of him as of the space demon that had its gimlet eyes on her mother as she lay staring at the horror that was, for once, outside her own head.

~*~

It was only natural that Willow be the one to find the first clue. “I’ve found some stuff on hollow meteors going back to the twelfth century. They refer to it as the Queller Impact in Iceland.”

Xander became excited. For once, he had something to add to what Willow had discovered. “Oh! Oh! Here!” He flipped pages rapidly. “Queller…here it is. It says here that ancient people thought the moon caused insanity and so they prayed to the moon to send a special meteor to fix the problem that the moon had caused. The meteors were supposed to quell the madmen!”
Tara suddenly remembered where she had seen the dead man before! He was a mental patient who had accosted Dawn on the street a few weeks earlier. “The man in the woods was a mental patient. I remember him.”

The more they read, the more they saw their current phenomena was likely the same thing. “So,” Xander asked the important question, “Who summoned it?”

Giles took off his glasses, “We should inform Riley.”

Not only was the call not a total surprise, but Riley and his team had already traced the demon to the hospital where the psychiatric ward had been decimated. All five patients were dead with a look of horror on their faces.

“So that thing, the Queller, is it still there?” Willow was glad that Mrs. Summers had been sent home earlier.

“Yeah, we’ve got it cornered in the air ducts,” Riley reassured her only to be tapped on the shoulder by Major Ellis. “Hey, Willow, you guys keep on doing what you’re doing and call me when you figure out how I can kill this thing. Gotta go.”

The team were in the parking lot of the hospital preparing to set up a perimeter for a final search.

“The trail stops here at the edge of the parking lot.”

Riley looked up searching the horizon, “A car. It hitched a ride probably underneath,” he sounded disgusted. “So much for containment.”

“So some patient checks out of here today and drives away with this thing. Took it right to his own home,” Ellis speculated.

Riley looked up in alarm, “I know where it’s going! We’ve gotta move now!”

~*~

No speculation was needed at the anything but restful Summers house. Joyce had been raving at the thing for what seemed like forever. Buffy missed hearing most of it as she cried her way through the dinner dishes. It was Dawn who finally worked up the courage and crept into her mom’s room preparing for the worst only to be greeted by a sight so far more into the worst category that all she could do was scream.

“Buffy!!!” Dawn valiantly picked up everything in reach and bashed at the unspeakable creature hovering over her terrified mother.

Buffy heard the cry and rushed into a scene of chaos, another typical night in Sunnydale. “You guys stay in here and don’t leave this room.”

Soon it was finally a situation Buffy was all too familiar with, mano y mano between Slayer and demon as the furniture in her home took yet another beating. She had grabbed a large knife from the rack in the kitchen as she moved swiftly in hunt mode.

The basement door popped open and she swung in alarm, knife raised only to see a startled Spike coming up from her basement. No time to wonder about that intrusion just now, she was merely glad to see someone who might help.

“You hear a noise?” Spike had heard Joyce and risked Buffy finding out about his nightly habits rooting through her basement.

“What the hell are you doing in my house?,” She wasn’t nearly as perturbed as she sounded. She noticed him try to slip what looked like photos in his pocket. “You’re stealing?”

“Can’t exactly work the counter at Burger Barn, can I? ‘Sides, your mum lets me borrow junk you aren’t using.” He looked a bit nervous but suspected Joyce would back him up.

Buffy rolled her eyes and tabled that discussion for later, much later, as she spied something slithering out of the corner of her eye. The Queller leapt straight at Spike, knocking him to the ground and the knife from Buffy’s hand.

“Crap!” Buffy fumbled for the knife, but before she could grasp it, the Queller was on her, slamming her into the wall.

Spike spotted the knife and gave a yell, “Buffy!” throwing the knife with accuracy and no doubt of the Slayer catching it.

He wrenched the beastie’s neck in a killer clinch as Buffy thrust the knife again and again into its soft body. Neither knew which actually killed the demon, but the important thing was that it lay dead atop the Slayer.

Spike held out a hand and helped Buffy to her feet just as the door burst open and the room broke into Commando Central with yelled orders and much confusion.

Riley spotted Spike immediately and glared at him in fury. Turning to Buffy, he noticed her mussed appearance. “You okay?”

She knew it wasn’t fair, but seeing the cavalry arrive after the battle was already won only served to irritate her. She didn’t answer, merely shot him a frown and rushed upstairs to her mother and sister.

Spike smirked at the useless soldier. “You just missed a real nice time.”

Riley grabbed Spike by the throat and shoved him against the wall. “I think it’s time you left, Spike. You’re not needed here.”

“Looks like you’re the third wheel here, Dudley,” Spike sneered. “Not to worry, Slayer and I got it under control. Nearest and dearest are fine.”

Finn released him abruptly and pivoted out the door, following the commandos who were removing the body to take in for examination. “I mean it, Spike, you need to leave.”

“I got a welcome here AND I’m not useless when the Slayer needs me the most.” Spike scored a direct hit. “Maybe I’m not the one needing to move on.”

Far above the testosterone fields, the three Summers merely held each other in relief that they had all lived yet another day together.

“Did I hear Spike and Riley?” Joyce was back to her clear-headed self at the moment.

“Um, yeah. Seems Spike was shopping in our basement at just the right time,” Buffy gave her mom a sharp look.

“I did tell him to help himself to any odds and ends we aren’t using. Looks like he was as handy to have around as I said earlier.” Joyce smiled.

Buffy remembered how well they had moved together, bringing the fight to a rapid conclusion with minimal damage to either of them. They hadn’t done a great deal of sparring together, but when they had, it seemed effortless to anticipate each other’s moves. Maybe working out a bit with Spike could have its advantages, hone her skills. He was the best opponent she had ever faced after all. She didn’t want another DiscoVamp using her own stake on her again. “He has his uses.”

“I hope you do more than use him, honey, I hope you make an ally of him.” She cupped Buffy’s face gently. “I just want you to have a long and happy life. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. You’re strong and clever, but not invulnerable. You have the unique chance to have someone at your side helping in the fight who has skills like you do and I’m hoping you’ll take it.”

Buffy could see her sincerity and knew that her mom had been giving this plenty of thought. Maybe there was more to Spike than she had given credit to in the past. He seemed to actually like her mother and sister. Who knew, maybe something could be worked out. There were worse things than having a fighting partner who she didn’t have to watch out for and let herself be distracted by protecting. She’d sleep on it.

“Plenty of time to worry about that when I’m done with this vacation from Slaying,” she smiled. “As for you…I seem to remember you promising the doctor that you’d actually get rest, so it’s under the covers for you.”

She didn’t even consider checking to see if the vampire in question remained in the house. For some reason, the idea of him downstairs was oddly comforting. Besides, he seemed to know his way around well enough to leave when he was ready. It looked like the friendship between Spike and her mom was more than Buffy had already guessed, given his running tame in her home. Buffy was pretty sure the odds and ends Joyce had offered weren’t the family photos she had seen him pocket earlier, but that was a mystery for another day.

~*~

Riley thought about the latest offer to rejoin his old unit and actually began to weigh his options. Buffy hadn’t even thanked him for showing up when he did. What exactly was it that held him there in this small miserable town anyway?

He’d suspected for a long while that she didn’t love him, not like he loved her anyway. She sure as hell didn’t seem to need him. She didn’t listen to his warnings about that Hostile she’d been letting around her and her family and friends. Hell, she’d protected Seventeen back when she knew that he was actively searching for him last year. It was beginning to look like Buffy had more than one vampire taking up a place in her life and maybe heart that should have been his alone. “Damn!” He smashed a fist against a tree in frustration. “So why am I here again?”

He hadn’t noticed Graham remaining behind when the team had piled into the ‘copter. “That’s what I’ve been wondering. So, brother, ready to come home?”

~*~

The calm after the storm passed and soon they were back at the hospital getting ready to prep Joyce for surgery. “Don’t worry about a thing, Mom, I’ve got it all covered.”

Joyce smiled. “I know you do, sweetheart.” Dawn had already left the room so her elder sister could receive the marching orders of the day from the head of the family. “Buffy….” Joyce cleared her throat not certain how or if she should broach the subject that had been bothering her for days. “I’m going to ask something that’ll sound kind of crazy. Well…crazier than even the usual stuff lately. If it’s part of this current mess and just part of my illness, you’ll tell me, right?”

“Of course, Mom.” Buffy was worried. Just what kind of damage had that growth caused?

“The other day, when I was pretty out of it, I had this dream. Well, not a dream, but more like this knowledge from nowhere, like a light switched on and I could see the truth.” She was nervous, hoping that what she would say would make some kind of sense. It was so hard to put into words what she had experienced, what she knew without understanding.

“What, Mom?”

“It’s about Dawn.” Buffy’s eyes widened and Joyce could tell by the look on her face that it wasn’t all in her imagination or part of the madness, so she ventured further. “She’s not mine, is she?”

Buffy bit her lip, unsure of what to say or do. Finally she decided that she owed her mother the truth at the very least. It must be hell to not know what was real and what wasn’t without her withholding the reassurance that more was at play than a brain tumor. “No, she’s not.”

Joyce gave that some thought and nodded her head. There would be time enough for the full story later if she made it through surgery. If not, she had to settle a few things and then let it go for now. “But she DOES belong to us though. She’s important, not just to us, but the world. Precious.” She grasped Buffy’s hand, “As precious as you are to me.”

Buffy nodded in agreement but offered not a word. Her mom was pretty amazing really, being able to take things so calmly now that she had finally accepted the weird world they lived in.
“Then we have to take care of her.” She was resolute, “Buffy, you have to promise me that if anything happens, if I don’t make it….”

Buffy was horrified. “NO, Mom! You’re gonna be fine. Don’t even talk like that.”

“No, listen to me, I have to make sure you know how I feel. No matter what she is, who she is, she still feels like my daughter. I have to know that you’ll take care of her, keep her safe. I need you to love her like I love you.” She looked imploringly into Buffy’s eyes, willing her to feel all that she was feeling for them both at this moment. “Please promise me.”

“I promise.” It was not hard. Buffy had all those memories and feelings so deep in her that it was impossible to know which were implanted and which had just developed on their own. She loved Dawn.

“Good. Good.” Joyce hugged her eldest and relaxed. “My sweet, brave Buffy, what would I do without you?”

Buffy felt the same for her mother and hoped she’d not have to find out. She was her rock and Buffy feared the crashing waves of her life without her mother there to grasp hold of. She wasn’t sure she could make it if things didn’t go well with the surgery. “Well, you won’t need to find out.”

Too soon the gurney was pushed down the hall and out of view, leaving Buffy feeling like she was five again and oh so alone. The phrase ‘nothing left but a prayer,’ hit her like a six hundred pound Griglox and the tears began to make a trail down her face. Her mom had to be okay, the Powers owed her that much.

 

Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/402065.html

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