It was a night for brownies. Joyce had been a nervous wreck until Buffy had called after her meeting at the library to report that all was well. With the relief had come a desire for chocolate. No one else was in the house, or she knew Dawn, at least, would be hovering over the cooling rack practicing her geometry by laying out the most advantageous cuts for pieces per person. Instead, Joyce sat at the table, hovering over the cooling rack, picking crunchy bits off the edges.
Was she as diminished as Ethan Rayne seemed to be? He'd been quicksilver menace and cunning while supervising the band candy incident. He should have seemed slimy and conniving, like Weasely Wally from her middle school, who liked to lurk around the girls' locker room after gym class, but Joyce's admittedly addled brain at the time had paid more attention to the nimble way his hands moved and the twisted humor of his smile.
Seeing that same man scared and scarred had been more disturbing than Joyce imagined it could be. It was such a grim reminder of the way life took its toll. She still limped slightly. She may never be as nimble again herself as she was when following the punk version of Rupert Giles through the streets of Sunnydale. Her teenage years were nothing she wanted to relive while she was thinking rationally, but the remembered thrill of that night still made her smile very privately.
She got up and took the dirty brownie-making dishes to the sink to rinse them out before putting them in the dishwasher. Dawn and Buffy would be home soon. It was a school day tomorrow, and there were lunches to be made and activity forms to sign and responsible mom things to do.
The knock on the kitchen door made her jump and drop the mixing spoon on the floor.
Knowing better than to just open the door, she peeked through the curtain. Oh, speak of one of the devils.
She took a deep breath and opened the door. "Hello, Rupert."
Rupert Giles stayed at the far edge of the back porch and smiled. "Good evening, Joyce."
She pressed her foot against the doorsill to remind herself where the boundary was. "Well. Um. Forgive me for not inviting you in for coffee."
His smile went from distantly courteous to amused acknowledgment. "That's quite all right, I didn't come by for a long visit."
Joyce managed to smile as politely as she could while managing not to show she was nervous about having him here. "What can I do for you?"
He looked away for a moment and frowned. "I was--going over some things this evening, and I remembered a promise I made you six months ago. I try to keep my promises."
She frowned herself. "Six months ago?" Back in the spring time, when they were all worried about Glory, just after her attack. Those long, frightening days and nights in the hospital, wondering if her life was going to end like her great-uncle's, trapped in a bed, a prisoner in her own body. Her memories were cloudy, but she remembered the weakness, seeing the children gathered uncomfortably around her bed, Dawn always inches away from tears and Buffy pulled in so tight around herself, her family collapsing around her while her damned duty did its best to crush her as well. And other visitors, deep in the night, poor Spike looking like a scared young man instead of a century-old monster, whispering to her in a voice filled with education instead of bravado. And someone else as well, when she was feeling particularly helpless but had just seen a possible escape. "Oh. That promise."
Giles nodded gravely. "Yes. I said I'd come back in six months and see if you still wanted to ask me for a particular favor."
Joyce wanted to be horrified at her six-months-ago self for even entertaining the idea of asking to die, especially when she was all but fully recuperated now, but the dread and helplessness were still too clear in her memory. The girls would have been so devastated, even if they were free of that burden. That was guilt to be mulled over in the luxury of her relative good health.
"Thank you for not taking me up on it," she said softly.
"You're quite welcome."
He sounded so much like his old self that she nearly forgot and invited him in. Nearly. He looked a great deal less civilized than he had last spring. He didn't seem to be making as much of an effort to downplay the changes. His hair was shaggier, and there seemed to be bruises fading on his face. His attention kept drifting away from Joyce, and whatever was on his mind was apparently disturbing. The problems of vampires were definitely not her business, but . . .
"Are you all right?"
He blinked and stared at her, honestly startled. "No," he said after a moment. "But it's nothing that should come anywhere near you."
"Will it come near Buffy?" She gasped at the pain on his face.
He took a deep breath, and the disturbing, otherworldly remoteness of a vampire was replaced by the resolution of the man. "Not if I can help it."
"Thank you." He looked startled again. "I never said that enough. You took Buffy into all that danger, but you always looked out for her, too. She misses you."
He winced and turned his face away. "And I miss her." A deep breath, and he looked back at her. "Good-bye, Joyce. I hope not to have reason to see you again."
Joyce winced herself, then nodded. "Good-bye, Rupert."
He looked at her a moment longer, then disappeared down the porch steps and into the night.