I Need To Know

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It's barbaric.

This ritual that humans have. They lay the bodies of their loved ones out in open caskets, layered in makeup that fails to hide how blue they are, and they sit in pews and watch people filter in and out. They listen to sad music and openly weep and it's just - it's barbaric. I've decided that I hate the sound of a piano. I hate the smell of freshly cut flowers. And I hate not knowing what's on the other side of the coin. I hate not knowing where Joyce currently is.

We know so much about magick and revivification and we're powerless to something as stupid and **final** as death. Why is that? Why can't Giles just reverse time and erase the aneurysm? Why can't Willow sprinkle Jermish salts all over Joyce's body and just chant and make her breathe again? It works on gnomes. Why can't I, an ex- demon who's seen it all, find a way to make it right?

And what are Buffy and Dawn expected to do? So far they've just huddled together in the front of the room, Dawn's head on Buffy's shoulder as she cries and cries. Buffy's not showing any emotion at all and I've heard Xander and Giles talking about that. They said she's in a daze. She's shocked. I asked them if she was expected to cry, if she was supposed to wail the way Dawn did on her mother's bed the first night of Joyce's death, but they just scowled at me. I want to know.

I need to know.

Why do people sign books and then come and glare down into the coffin? Is it because they need to be reminded of death, have it right there in their face, so they can walk away and take stock of their own lives? Is that what this is for? It seems embarrassing. Like, a body is just the clothing that you wear, and people are staring down, gawking at your discarded laundry. It's just- wrong.

Flowers have been steadily streaming through the doors, set up in pretty little displays all over the place. Willow and Tara keep retrieving the cards and going to Buffy and Dawn, showing them what they say. Should I get the book and read them all the names in it? Should I light more candles? Should I go get fresh tissue for Dawn or stare at Joyce or sit here quietly, cataloguing the questions I need answered?

And why does she need a coffin anyway? If it's just a shell of the person she was, why does she need a pricey shell around her? Why do they put them in the ground instead of burning them all? If they burned every person who ever died, wouldn't that stop new vampires from rising? I wonder if Buffy plans to keep being a vampire slayer. If you ask me, she couldn't lift a stake right now, much less stab anyone with it.

Her hands shake. Earlier, when she had a cup of tea, she kept rattling it on the saucer. I saw Giles watching her. He's been hovering a few feet away from her for the most part. Just watching. That's what he does, I guess. He watches and he waits for her to need him. He keeps looking like he wants to say something to her, but he doesn't. He'll open his mouth, shut it, clean his glasses, rub his eyes, adjust his jacket, and open his mouth again. But in the end, he just watches her every move. Maybe he's waiting for her to wail like Dawn because he wants to hug her, carry her through it.

Maybe that's what I'm supposed to do. Just watch and wait for them to need me. I don't feel comfortable watching. I can't be content to just observe because everything I see makes me want to ask more questions. I keep trying to remember my mother, but I can't. I can't remember anything from my life before I was a Vengeance Demon. I think that's sad. I think I'm sad.

I get up and walk slowly up the aisle. I've already signed the book. I've already looked at the flowers. I've already frowned at the piano player every time he starts to play the same songs. But I haven't really, really looked at Joyce. I just peeked at her, noticed her skin color, and darted all the way to the back of the room, where I sat like a scared child.

Joyce was the only 'mother' any of us had really.

I wonder if Buffy knows that her mom taught me how to make meatloaf. I ran into her at the grocery store and I was panicking because I wanted to make something romantic for Xander's dinner at his new apartment, and she just magically appeared when I was about to dissolve into tears. She told me that Xander loved her meatloaf, showed me which stuff to buy, then followed me to Xander's place, where she mixed it all up, talking me through the motions, and then put it in the oven. She help me set the table, mix the salad, and then left to pick up Dawn at school. And she hugged me. She gave me a very real, very motherly hug, and told me we'd have to get together soon.

Soon never really came, though. Did it?

I approach her coffin slowly, like I expect the floor to open up and swallow me whole. Which, given the town, that's not unlikely. I rest my hands on the cool metal, right beside her head and look down at her. Her hands are clasped over her chest and she's got a rose in her hand. Why would they put a flower in her hand? That seems like - it reminds me of the Prom, when Xander put a corsage on me. We had someplace to go. And Joyce is just going into the ground. She's all dressed up with no place to go.

Someone painted her nails. They're light peach and they match the tailored suit that Buffy and Dawn chose from her closet. There was a time when the color would have looked wonderful on her, but now, it just makes her look like she asphyxiated. Her face is sunken, cheeks hollowed, eyes closed, but bulging, and her lips look like she's about to smile, but didn't quite make it.

Her hair is beautiful, curly around her face, fanning against her cheeks. She's lying on the delicate pink satin pillow and I wonder if it's comfortable. Is it feather or polyester filled? Is it thick enough? Is it too thick? Will it make her hair smash against the lid when it closes? It would be a shame, since her hair is the only thing that still looks like Joyce.

I hear someone crying hysterically and I think that someone better go comfort the person.

Then I realize that it's me.

And Buffy and Dawn reach me first. They're on either side of me, prying my hands off the edge of the coffin and Buffy is telling me that it's okay. She's rubbing my back and my hair and giving me a half hug. I've never hugged her. I turn to her completely, wrapping my arms around her. She's so much smaller than I thought. She feels frail, like a little girl. Like a lost little girl. And I think if I let her go, she'll die too. "Buffy," I sob. "If I had my powers, I'd bring her back. I'd make the fates tremble and I'd bring her back for you and for Dawn."

Dawn! I turn and gather her in my arms too, kissing her on the head. "This is just wrong. It's so wrong to make you sit here and listen to horribly keyed music that would sound better if a monkey was plucking the keys." The pianist stops playing and the silence washes over the room. Making it more miserable. I look at him. "Don't stop now! Keep going! There has to be some melancholy tune you haven't played yet! How about the wedding march! You've exhausted every other tune known to man!" He starts to play something and it makes me sob even harder. "That's the ticket! Depress us all even more! You could pick up the piano and heave it at us if we're not crying enough!"

Xander steps toward me. He looks so dashing in his tuxedo. He reaches for me, like he wants to hug me. "No! Don't hug me! Don't you people see how horrible all this is? Horrible music and dying flowers and autographs in books! What about Joyce!? What about **her**?"

"What do you mean?" Dawn asks in a small voice.

"I don't want this to be the last thing I remember about her," I tell her. She looks so much like a child, hanging on my every word. Her tears have dried up and she's looking hopeful, like the weight of the world isn't on her. She's looking at me like she wants me to keep talking, make her not think about the corpse of her mother. "Dawn, tell me something about your mom that we don't know."

Dawn glances at the coffin and then at Buffy. "Wh- when Buffy ran away, Mom wrote her letters everyday. She didn't have anywhere to send them, and I'd ask her why she was writing them, and she said that Buffy was still a part of us, even though she wasn't there. She wanted Buffy to know everything that happened every day so she wouldn't feel left out."

Buffy gasps. "She did?"

"They're in a box under her bed," Dawn says. "You should read them."

Buffy's eyes fill up with tears. "When Mom went in to have her surgery, Dawn, she knew that you weren't hers and she didn't care. All she cared about was keeping you safe and having you with us. Sh- she made me promise that I'd take care of you if she didn't make it."

"She didn't make it," Dawn whispers.

"And I'm going to take care of you," Buffy replies. They share a look and it breaks my heart. I notice that Willow is dabbing at her eyes. "Willow, you tell us something."

Willow swallows hard and bites her bottom lip. "The first argument I had with Tara ... I went to talk to Joyce about it. She didn't know that we were a couple yet, and it didn't bother her. She talked to me. We had chocolate cake and played cards and she told me how to make it right."

Tara gives her a smile. "The argument about the spell book?" When Willow nods, she smiles even bigger. "I called Joyce to see if you were with Buffy. She told me to light some candles, and buy you a flower, because you were on your way to see me."

I sniffle loudly and look at Giles. "What about you, Giles?"

"I don't think we need to go there," Buffy says, and to my surprise, she's got a devilish twinkle in her eye and a small smile.

Giles shifts around uncomfortably and blushes. "Yes, well, I daresay the 'Juice Newton' coat I stole for her is a fond memory." His eyes meet Buffy's. "But I think what I liked the most about her was her ability to share her very remarkable daughter with me."

Buffy steps forward and gives him a hug. I keep a firm arm around Dawn, who looks at Xander and says, "What about you, Xander?"

His hands are clasped in front of him. I've never seen his hair more neatly combed, his clothes better fitting, or the grown up look on his face. "Oh, wow," he sighs. "Everything about her. She was the mom I didn't have. She could cook, she could listen to me ramble about stupid things, and she was beautiful. When you were gone, Buffy, she would invite me to dinner all the time."

"I remember!" Dawn pipes up, smiling brightly. "You'd set the table and we'd have sword fights with the candles and she'd tell us to behave, then grab a candle of her own and join in! And remember that one time, we had the spaghetti-"

Xander nods, genuinely laughing for the first time in days. "And she threw the noodle at the wall to see if it would stick-"

"And you just happened to walk through the door and it hit you in the face-"

"In the **eye**," Xander corrects.

"And you flailed around saying you were scalded and blind and she was so busy making sure you were okay that the pasta overcooked so we went to get pizza instead."

"And she let me drive."

"And when you hit the curb, you blamed it on your bad eye. And she laughed so hard she almost choked on her ice cream." Dawn cuts her eyes over at her mother's prone body. "Her laugh was the greatest. You couldn't hear it and not join in."

Buffy nods, still smiling from the story. "And she could tell the best jokes. She never messed up the punch line."

"And she knew a bunch of dirty ones," I add, remembering the jokes she told me as we cooked together. "She told me one about a duck on a man's ass. Or was it a man's ass on a duck?"

No one replies. But no one is crying anymore. The pianist keeps pounding away, shooting me hateful looks. I take a deep breath and say, "She's not gone. Not really. We won't hear her laugh or see her smile or eat her spaghetti, but we won't forget her punchlines either. We won't forget anything about her. That's the good thing about mortality. We all die before our minds can forget. I don't remember my mom, but Buffy, I remember yours. I remember Christmas dinner and the movie that made her cry on Christmas Eve."

"It's A Wonderful Life," Buffy says.

"It is!" I nod in agreement. "It is a wonderful life while we have it. We should remember the Joyce who had it. Not this." I point at the coffin. Joyce's blue face is just barely visible over the side. "That's not Joyce. Why should this be the last thing that gets inked into our memory banks?"

"You're right," Buffy looks at Dawn. Another look passes between them. They may not be sisters in the natural way, but they are in every way that matters. I can almost see the unspoken words passing between them. As one, they walk to Joyce's side, their hands firmly clasped, fingers entwined.

Buffy reaches up and grips the lid. "Goodbye, Mommy. I love you."

Dawn touches the rose in her hand and I see her fingertips lightly graze the back of Joyce's arm. "I love you, Mom."

And just like that, Buffy shuts the lid. She looks at Dawn again, who wipes her eyes. "Remember that time that you got locked in the broom closet?"

"Yeah," Dawn replies. "If I remember correctly, you knew I was in there. And you knew I was afraid of the dark."

"Remember what Mom said?"

"She said that the dark was peaceful and I should close my eyes and not be scared."

"Her eyes are closed, Dawn."

But mine are open. I sat through the rest of the service, no longer questioning what people stood up to say, or why the pianist kept playing the same song repeatedly, or why people signed the book. At the graveside, I didn't bother asking how vampires claw their way through metal coffins or why they had to pay for grave liners. Instead, I thought about meatloaf, meticulously going over the ingredients in my head, trying to decide how much more of the stuff I needed to buy so I could make enough for everyone.

She left us all with something. A laugh. A smile. A joke. A book recommendation. A movie that made her cry that will inevitably make us cry if for no other reason than she did. And candle wars, and ice cream, and meat loaf. Joyce's meatload.

// Aww, honey, don't worry. I'll help you. I'm free until four when I have to pick up Dawn. I'll show you a Summers' family secret passed down from generation to generation. //

// But I'm not family. //

// Since when? //

I may not be able to bring her back.

But I'll make that live on.


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