Characters: Joyce and Nathaniel (FFA #602)
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer belongs to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. Anita Blake belongs to Laurell K. Hamilton. No profit has been made from this fic, and the only benefit to me is personal satisfaction and the creative process.
Notes: Started as a FFA 2004 entry, it grew and took on a life of its own. Set during season three of BtVS, and after Incubus Dreams
for Anita Blake. Contains spoilers for The Body
in season five of Buffy and for ID
After her younger brother Michael died, Joyce had lost track of that branch of the family. She had heard rumours that Michael's girlfriend died, leaving the boys with someone, but no one ever really knew who.
Joyce wasn't proud of it. Thing had been crazy back then. Years went by, and she kept on thinking that she should try and find the boys, then her marriage to Hank exploded and she had to move Buffy to Sunnydale. And then...
Excuses, all. Joyce sighed as she leaned back in the booth in the St. Louis coffee shop. She stared down at the papers in front of her, old news clippings she had copied at the library.
Her brother, dead of pneumonia. His girlfriend dead, a tiny obituary.
Her oldest nephew, dead at age eight. The newspaper said the boy had been beaten to death in a domestic incident, and that the younger brother, only six, had run away.
Nicholas, dead. Nathaniel, missing.
Joyce pushed her hair back as she stared at the papers, too numb to cry. If she had known what the boys had gone through, she'd have flown out and taken them home with her, Hank be damned.
But now, years later, it was far too late. It was always too late.
Joyce sighed and checked her watch. Back home in Sunnydale, Buffy would be out of school. Buffy was at home by herself, but she could take care of herself. Even if it was her last year of high school, her little girl wasn't so little any more.
Joyce sipped the last of her coffee. It had grown cold while she sat staring at the ruins of her nephews' lives. She paid and left. She had something she needed to do.~~~~~~~~~
Joyce double-checked the location of the plot, then shoved the scrap of paper into her pocket. A small stone marker was the only indication of the grave. Joyce traced the words, Michael Graison
, and sighed.
"Hey Mike, it's Joy," she said out loud, using the nickname he had given her when he was just a baby, learning to talk. "I just found out, about the boys. About their mom. If I'd known..."
Her voice trailed off. Making excuses to the dead in the cold, where it no longer mattered.
"I'm sorry I let you down, Mike. I'm sorry I let this happen to Nicholas and Nathaniel." A tear trickled down her cheek and she brushed it away impatiently.
There were no excuse for what she had done. Or, more importantly, what she had failed to do.
Suddenly, Joyce needed to get away from there. She turned around and almost ran into someone. Startled, she stepped back. "Sorry, I didn't see you there--" She stopped talking, stopped breathing.
The man behind her was the spitting image of her dead brother. But it couldn't be Michael. And with Nicholas dead, this young man had to be...
Nathaniel had been moping around for days, until Anita had finally snapped and asked him what was wrong.
"It's my birthday soon," Nathaniel had said.
Anita smiled slightly. "Hey, you'll be legal to go into your place of business on non-working nights." Her smile faded at the look on his face. "What is it, really?"
Nathaniel shrugged. "It's just, that ever since my mom died, I've never had a chance to celebrate. At this time of year, I always think about my mom and dad. And Nicky."
Anita sat down beside him on the couch and rubbed his back. "I'm sorry," she said softly.
"Why?" Nathaniel asked.
Anita kissed him softly on the cheek, and Nathaniel felt the cold inside him start to melt. Only she could do that to him. "That everyone died and left you all alone."
He shook his head. "Sometimes I wonder, you know? What it would have been like if things had been different."
He fingered the worn piece of paper he had carried around with him for years. "What's that?" Anita asked.
Nathaniel unfolded it. "My dad's obituary. It's all I have of him. No pictures, nothing. I know he had family, somewhere, but that's it."
Anita slid the piece of paper out of his hand. "I know that graveyard," she said. "I had a job there just last week."
"I've never..." Nathaniel gulped. "I keep meaning to go, you know, check it out, but I can't."
"Why not?" Anita's voice was soft, calming. Safe. She was so seldom like this with anyone that it made Nathaniel feel safe, when she treated him like a person. Someone that she could love.
"I'm not what he would have wanted," Nathaniel finally said. "I mean, look at me. A heroin addict, a prostitute for how many years? Who'd want their son to turn out like that?"
He put his head in his hands. That was it, at the crux of the matter. It shouldn't have mattered, because his parents were dead, but it did. Not what he was now, but what he had been. Had done to survive.
He felt Anita's arms go around his back as she hugged him tight. "You're a survivor, Nathaniel," she whispered. "You were alone and you did what you had to."
Anita stroked his hair. "I could go with you."
"If you wanted to go visit the grave. I could go with you, so you weren't alone."
Nathaniel sat up to look at her. "Are you sure?" he asked.
She smiled again, but she looked haunted. It was a feeling Nathaniel was more than familiar with. "You're not the only one who can't visit a parent's grave," she said.~~~~~~~
Anita parked the Jeep. "So, here we are."
Nathaniel couldn't look up from his hands. "Yeah."
In the winter stillness, he heard the engine ticking. Anita's breathing. He could smell the heat on her skin, the safest smell he knew. He fell asleep almost every night beside her, her strong arms wrapped around him, making him safe, making him real.
"We don't have to do this," Anita finally said.
He took a deep breath. "Yes, we do." Because he couldn't turn back now, not after he told her that he would do it. He couldn't appear weak in her eyes.
Nathaniel made himself undo his seatbelt and get out of the car. His footsteps crunched on the crisp snow, cold like St. Louis was the week before Christmas.
Anita walked at his side, holding his hand, as they crossed the snowy graveyard.
As they drew nearer to his father's grave, Nathaniel's steps slowed. There was a woman standing by a grave, her back to them. He was suddenly angry. No one should be in the graveyard. No one but him. This was his time.
"Nathaniel," Anita murmured, "I think that's your father's grave."
As quickly as the anger came, it left, and Nathaniel just felt tired. He didn't want to deal with this. He wished he had never told Anita about any of this.
But it was too late now. He let go of Anita's hand and made himself take deliberate steps toward the grave.
The woman at the grave turned around suddenly and almost walked into Nathaniel. "Sorry, I didn't see you there--" she begin. Then her eyes got wide, so very wide, and she stared at him. "Nathaniel?"
He froze. He didn't know how this stranger knew his name, or why she was at his father's grave, and he wanted to be somewhere else.
Someone caught his arm. Anita. With that simple touch, he instantly calmed. Anita was with him and she wouldn't let him get hurt.
"Who are you?" Anita asked for him.
The woman couldn't take her eyes off Nathaniel's face. "Joyce Summers," she said. "Are you Nathaniel?"
Swallowing hard, Nathaniel nodded.
The woman shook her head. "I can't believe this," she said. "It's amazing, finding you here like this."
"Find me?" Nathaniel licked his lips. "What do you mean? Who are you?"
"I'm your-- Michael was my brother," Joyce said.
Nathaniel felt his eyes being drawn to the small stone marker on the grave. His dad was under there, rotted down to bones and rags.
A hot, blinding rage swept over Nathaniel. That bastard had died on him and Nicky, left them alone to pain and death.
He pulled away from Anita, took a few steps away in the snow. Dimly, he knew that Joyce was going to follow him, but that Anita stopped her.
He made it as far as an oak tree, standing lazily over the graves, and he hit it as hard as he could.
The pain from the impact of his fist on the tree trunk jarred Nathaniel back to reality. He leaned against the tree and looked down at his hand. He didn't think he'd broken anything, but the skin on his knuckles was torn. The red blood was almost startling in its intensity.
He looked up from his hand when he heard footsteps in the snow. It was Anita, her arms crossed over her chest. "You okay?" she asked.
"Yeah." Nathaniel lifted his hand to his mouth and licked the blood away. He could feel his beast under his skin, and for a moment, he wanted to let it out. The beast didn't care about emotions. It was a simple creature. Eat when you want. Fuck when you want. Hunt when you want.
He pushed it all away. He wasn't an animal, no matter what Gabriel and Raina had tried to make him. He was what Anita saw in him. Someone worthy. Someone worthwhile.
"Do you want to leave?" she asked. Over her shoulder, Nathaniel could see Joyce, still standing by the grave.
Her brother's grave. Nathaniel wasn't the only person who had lost when Michael Graison died.
"No. I think I need to talk to her."
"Do you want me to come with you?" Anita asked softly.
He nodded. "I don't know if I can do this alone."
She smiled at him, that wonderful smile she had, and it gave Nathaniel enough strength to walk back over to his father's grave and the woman standing there.~~~~~~~
"So what do you do?" Anita asked. They had retreated from the cold to a diner near the graveyard, one Anita knew well.
Joyce fidgeted with her purse. "I own an art gallery in Sunnydale, California." She opened the purse and pulled out her wallet, but then put it back on the table.
By this point, Nathaniel had calmed down. His father, mother and brother were dead, and he couldn't change that. But the woman, his aunt, was much more on edge than at the graveyard.
"What's in there?" he asked quietly. Joyce looked up at him with wide eyes.
"Oh, just a picture of Buffy. Your cousin."
"I have a cousin?" Nathaniel said. "Neat. How old is she?"
"She's in senior year of high school," Joyce said, opening her wallet and showing Nathaniel a school picture.
It was a nice picture of a smiling girl. "She's pretty," Nathaniel said, handing the wallet back.
"Yes, she is." Joyce put the wallet away. "Nathaniel, about... about what happened."
"What do you mean?" Nathaniel asked.
Joyce looked pained. "About your father, and your mother."
"What about them?"
"I didn't know..." Joyce seemed to be at a loss for words. "I didn't know what happened to your mother," she finally said. "And I only just learned about your brother."
"Nicholas," Anita interrupted. "His name was Nicholas."
"Anita," Nathaniel said quietly. "It's okay."
Anita closed her mouth with a snap and sat back in her chair. Nathaniel reached under the table and gave her hand a quick squeeze.
"No, it's not okay," Joyce said. "No one in the family knew much about what Michael was doing. After he died, we thought that his-- your mother, was fine with you boys."
Nathaniel didn't have anything to add, so he kept his mouth shut.
"We later learned of your mother's death, but I didn't know about Nicky until just recently. If I had known--"
"You'd have what, come rescued them?" Anita burst out.
"Anita, stop it," Nathaniel said as firmly as he could. "I can handle this."
Anita subsided, although Nathaniel could see the effort it took her.
He turned back to Joyce. Even now, he could not call this woman his aunt. Could not admit a family relationship.
"What you would have done, it doesn't matter," he said. The small silver clasp in his hair brushed against the skin on the back of his neck, stinging, burning, but just enough to remind him that he wasn't dead. "It's over. Nicky's gone and that's that. End of story."
"I know," Joyce said. "It's just that I want to get to know you."
Joyce frowned. "What do you mean, why?"
"I mean why? You don't know me, anything about me. You're hardly ever in St. Louis. What does it matter?"
"It matters because you're my nephew."
Nathaniel couldn't help it. He laughed bitterly. "That's not all that I am. You don't want to know me."
"What are you talking about?"
"Do you know what I had to do after I ran away? After he killed Nicky?" Nathaniel leaned in so he could talk quietly. "There's only so many things a kid can do to make money on the streets."
No matter how little he talked about it, he always remembered everything. The panic he felt at running, knowing that he was never going to see Nicky again. The first time he had to sell his body for money, just so he wouldn't starve to death. That first rush when the heroin hit his blood, made the screaming stop, if only for a little while.
The first time Gabriel's claws ripped into his body, changing him, making him different, ripping him away from one life of pain and condemning him to another.
"And it's not only that," Nathaniel pressed on, not wanting to stop. If he stopped, he might never start again. "I'm a stripper, that's how I make money these days. And to top it off, I'm a wereleopard. Just an animal."
He could hear Anita's shaky breathing. But for right now, it didn't mean anything.
Joyce stared at Nathaniel for a heartbeat, just long enough for the world to take a step back. Then, she bent over the table so that she was closer to him. "Do you expect me to run away?" she asked. "That your words are going to scare me off, not nice enough for my little world? Let me tell you something. I'm sorry, so sorry that we let you down, but that happened. It's in the past. I will never be able to make it up to you, I know that. All I want to do is know you. You're my brother's blood. If you want me to leave, then I'll do that, but I will not do that because you're a lycanthrope or whatever your job is. I don't care what you are, I care who you are."
She meant it. Nathaniel knew that she meant it, and he had no idea what to do.
"Anita?" he asked, voice small.
Anita slid her small hand into his larger one, and squeezed. "We do whatever you want," she murmured.
Nathaniel concentrated on breathing. He didn't know what he wanted. Did he want this woman to go away? Forever? Maybe she was like the rest, just a user.
But if she was, then Nathaniel knew that Anita would help him. And there was always the possibility that she was on the level.
But why would anyone want to know him? Just because? He wasn't anything special.
Holding Anita's hand, knowing that she'd be there if he needed her, he made a decision. "So what do we do now?" he asked Joyce.
Joyce smiled at his words. "I'm not sure. I think we just talk." She cast a quick glance at Anita. "Is Ms. Blake your girlfriend?"
Anita and Nathaniel exchanged looks. It was going to be a long talk. ~~~~~~~~
Joyce went home to Sunnydale. She and Nathaniel exchanged letters, pictures. She located a picture of his father, Michael, when Michael was just a little boy. Nathaniel sent her a picture that Zane took, of him in the garden at the house.
The letters contained tidbits about his cousin Buffy, and later about Dawn. He wrote back about the little things he did, about the pard, Anita, his friends.
For the first time in his life, Nathaniel had family, a blood relative, who didn't demand the relationship be pain and chaos.
A year and half later, the letters slowed. Joyce wrote that she had been in the hospital, but she was sure it was nothing.
Nathaniel got one last letter, with Joyce telling him the truth she had been hiding. She was sick, really sick, and she wasn't sure if she would get better. She told him, that just in case she didn't make it, that she loved him, and was glad that he had let her get to know him, the fine young man he had become.
He pasted that last letter in his scrapbook, right next to her obituary. He looked at it sometimes, and occasionally he let himself wonder what it might have been like, if Joyce had come to get him and Nicky, had been their new mom.
Then he closed the scrapbook and put it away. As hard as he might wish it, no one could change the past. -fin