DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
FEEDBACK: valyssia[at]gmail.com

By Valyssia


a muffled conversation in an adjacent room

I need to get over this or on with it. I’ve been standing here with my ear to the door, snooping and feeling like I’m five, for so long that the doorknob’s actually warmed in my hand.

What I need is a life, or a hobby. I could find a clue…maybe grow up…

Yeah, this is really mature.

I’ve just gotta see one more time. Maybe it’ll sink in if I do.

And that might be the dumbest thing ever.

Yet here I am.

Well, no one’s making any fun funny noises, so…

Weird, the doorknob feels chilly again when I bear down, but I guess it’s really not. The thing’s kind of on the large side, like the size of a tennis ball. The faint clinking sound it makes when I turn it brings on a cringe. I shrug off the creepy-crawlies and peek inside. Go figure. The hall light paints a slash across the cabinets and countertop of a kitchenette that’s set into a nook by the door. That’s not exactly what I pictured. It’d be helpful if this was just like, y’know, a bedroom without the added complication.

Anyone with any sense at all would probably walk away. Me? I’ve never been very good at letting stuff go. Shutting the door is another clicky, cringe-worthy exercise, with a side of pitch blackness that puts a temporary damper on my progress. I have to at least wait until my eyes get over the starry, splotchy thing they’re doing. And if I had a choice…

I really didn’t. Open doors attract attention. One random patrol could result in enough suckage to ruin my whole night.

Course, after the day I’ve had, what’s a little more ruin? The back of my head’s tender to the touch. Sudden movements are as profoundly bad an idea as being here in the first place. Judging from the achy queasiness, I probably have a mild concussion.


I have no idea how long one of Will’s magical Mickeys lasts, but I should be good, at least with the rerun. What Cass did was way subtler, but Faith was still magicked to sleep, so…


Yeah, I’m really pressing my luck.

No, it’s fine. I’ll be okay. It’ll be good. I can do this.

And all that self-mollification really gets me is a whole lot of not feeling better, but my eyes are as adjusted as they’re gonna get, so I tiptoe toward a squareish lump that borders the edge of the small sitting room. I think it’s a chair.

It’d be nice if I had a clue why. Whatever Will’s reasons were for going there—for getting mixed up—for attacking my double—she sure didn’t bother to share. And last I saw she was decorating a stretcher. I caught a glimpse of her during the circus that passed for the new Chicago watcher ‘containing the scene.’

Yup, definitely a chair. A pale strip on the carpet to my right highlights a door. I make my way there and stop to listen. Two people in the next room inhale sluggish, regular, sleepy breaths. I rest my hand on the doorknob and wait. I’ll give it a sec and if nothing happens…

Giles claims Edith Meriwether’s good people, but I remain completely unimpressed. She could be the second coming; it wouldn’t change the fact that she has a voice that could curdle cream.

The final straw was when she screeched at some girl named Shannon to ‘see to Buffy.’ I was about to protest that I didn’t need any ‘seeing too’ when I realized she wasn’t talking about me. Her attention to detail was brilliant.

She contained the scene alright. She was so busy BSing with Cass and barking orders that she ‘contained’ her one conscious witness into a portal. No one else seemed to mind that I slipped away. Absent, I was just one less person to contend with.

The only one who noticed me was Vi. The look of dawning comprehension on her face was followed by a twiddled wave, but there was too much going on for anything more. She’s the only reason I knew where I was.

I guess, to be fair they were only dealing with a demonic essence ‘spill’ at a Catholic boarding school. The whole thing was kind of hilarious, actually…in a really, really, really, really, really, twisted sort of way. Slayer nuns?

It could work…the day that meekness and slayeryness become even remotely compatible. Imagining how it’d go turns into something that looks like it belongs in a Tarantino film…outtakes from The Flying Ninja-Nun. Yeah, uh…

So normally, with two slayers in a room like this, I’d never stand a chance. They’d be on me the moment I came through the outer door. I’m still waiting. Been waiting.

And hey, look at that, this doorknob’s not nearly as ker-chunky. City lights pour in through open curtains. The contrast is almost like emerging into daylight. Except that peeking through a crack hardly qualifies as emerging. The extra light is nice though. I have an excellent view of part of the dresser.

I just wish I knew what was up with Will. All she told me was to stay put and keep quiet. And she didn’t even tell me that. I rated a couple of hand gestures before the fireworks went off. There had to be a reason. Something besides the creep-factor. That’s my thing. Her thing and my thing are so rarely the same thing. And my discomfort is such a tiny thing in the grand scheme of things.

A tiny thing I’m totally in touch with when I find the audacity to poke my head in the room. The bed’s directly in front of me. Faith’s out cold, lying flat on her back with ‘me’ in her arms. Neither one of them so much as twitches at my rudeness.

A few seconds tick by with me in a vacuum. I’m the only one who’s conscious enough to wig, so I let the breath that’s caught in my throat go.

This is just wrong. There are no words. My tummy flutters. I swallow in hopes of settling it. Like that’ll even—

Actually, there are plenty words—tons of choice options—just none I’ll ever repeat.

There’s the ‘saccharine’ that this is ‘sweet’ as. There’s ‘unbelievably unnerving.’ Or how ’bout ‘upsetting’? I’ve already put ‘creepy’ out there, but it deserves a revisit. ‘Cringe-worthy’? Yeah, that works too. It’s ‘keenly’ disturbing and not even ‘kosher.’ And did I mention ‘sweet’? It’s ‘sickeningly’ sweet.

But really it just sucks!

I feel strangely naked without pompoms whenever I do that.

I turn the knob and pull the door shut. It doesn’t quite meet the jamb before I open it again and lean in for a second glance. Like I need another. One more good, hard look to burn the unsettling image into my brain.

No, there’s nothing intimate about this. Not even a little. Would-be me is curled on her side using Faith’s left breast and shoulder as a pillow. From the shapes beneath the covers her right hand appears to be cupped over another pillowy, not-even-remotely-intimate part.

That part—her hand placement—that’d still be considered intimate even if they were clad in fur parkas and they aren’t. They aren’t wearing much at all.

Yeah, that was all just my overactive imagination.

Her right leg’s bent, resting over more of Faith’s assorted, not-so intimate parts. Her head at an angle. Not the best angle. Not an angle I’m used to seeing myself from, or someone who looks so much like me. It’s weird. I can almost see up her nose.

Her hair’s plastered to her head. There are dark circles under her eyes. And I don’t think that’s makeup. She has none of the other telltale signs. No black gribblies or—

Either that or she’s the only supposedly sane girl I’ve seen who’s compulsive enough to care what someone looking up her nose sees. Most of us avoid the whole ‘being viewed from unflattering angles’ thing. We don’t bother going all Catty Kathy over it.

I turn the doorknob and let the sigh I’ve been holding slip out, slow and easy. It’s an almost stealthy sigh that matches my almost stealthy door shutting and plunge into pitch darkness.

No, she wasn’t deranged. It’s perfectly normal to use a second mirror to carefully blend the makeup under your chin. No one in their right mind’s ever going to look there, but it’s just satisfying knowing that you went that extra mile to come off like a completely neurotic freak.

I still can’t believe they didn’t believe me. That was just another ripple in an endless stream of—they never listen.

The rest of my retreat’s a totally stealthy creep and grope until I get to the outer door. The doorknob clicks again, of course. I slip through, pull the damned thing shut and breathe a sigh of relief.

Huh. I did it. I went, I saw and no one wigged. That funny weight-lifty thing happens—all tingly and floaty and cool—and for three-point-two seconds I feel almost alright.

Who knows, maybe pod people have an inherent gift for color matching and blending in inconspicuous, completely pointless places? Could be it just happens. Or maybe there was a little Bobbi Brown DNA in the fertilizer and the spores turned into a bunch of skillful, intuitive estheticians.

It could happen.

There’s not much sense in me standing around, so I make myself move, turning listlessly back the way I came.

Really, realistically, I’m probably the extra. Carmen Copy’s been out in the world, ‘livin’ large’ with Faith. And where’ve I been?

I’ve been marooned on Willigan’s Island, talking to the pixies who live around her tree house because—even with the occasional nibbles—they were a whole lot nicer to me than she was.

No, my life’s not complicated.

The tension in my neck and shoulders builds…and that fiery tingle in my brain. Before I know it I’m moving like I’m on a mission. Like I have a clue where I’m going. Like I’m not trapped in a human Habitrail. I pass doorway after doorway set into alcove after alcove. The monotony is mind numbing.

This place is a maze. I think it was like some sort of assisted living facility or something before we got hold of it. It’s pretty much devoid of any character except for the rails next to the toilets. Those are funny, considering.

Well, that’s not fair. It has some character. It’s just not the good kind. The floor feels vaguely spongy under my feet. And it’s not because of the cheesy maroon carpet. Makes me wonder how walking down this hallway would feel to an actual normal person—someone who weighs more than ninety pounds.

‘Dangerous’ is probably the word I’m looking for. And what with the wind, the building feels like it’s swaying.

So, anyway, I’m going somewhere—somewhere equally cheery—somewhere not here—somewhere I may even reach without the ‘splat’…and I’m not wasting any time about it.

Now all I have to do is figure out where.

That or I could wander around for the rest of the night and brood. Play to my strengths. It’s not like I don’t have plenty of reasons.

I’m sure someone—one of the many peanuts in my gallery—would tell me I’m being petty ’cause the girl in the mirror got there first. And while I’ll admit that my social life hasn’t been very social or lifelike lately—in fact, it’s pretty much amounted to me talking to a tree, or the TV—

My god I sound pathetic.

But I’m not really jealous. Not of Faith. None of this has much if anything to do with her. I don’t really have a problem. Not really. I mean if she wants to go getting mixed up with one of the many mini-mes, I’ll deal. It’s a bit of a shock, but mostly because last I knew she was all over the boys.

A little too literally for me not to ‘eww.’

It’s not like I could stop her. It’s not like I even want to. I don’t. I don’t care…about that. It’s the ‘me’ who’s not ‘me’ who—

As I round a corner that I’m not even sure I should round the way I round it—that’s the trouble with wandering aimlessly—it dawns on me exactly what it was—that thing that made me want to take a second look—the thing that bugged—what I’m missing—she looked contented. It’s so simple, I feel stupid for not—

I look up. The lighted ‘exit’ sign at the end of the hallway is all I need to see. An out. Any out will do.

Her face was fuller than mine. Not a lot. Just a little. Just enough. Just perfect.

She looked healthy. She had this glow. A glow I haven’t seen in—

A glow I have to paint on.

Even completely conked and disheveled, she looked good. In a totally objective, no-so creepy and repulsively narcissistic sense, I could fall for her. And that makes me think that the pixies might’ve moved out of Will’s tree and into my tummy. It sure hurts enough.

And flip-flops and flutters.

I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and feel something else, anything else besides a strong desire for more makeup than—

The weird pricklies from the tear and the subsequent wiping make me flinch. It feels icky. Will keeps telling that the scars will fade—I know she’s right, nothing ever affects me for long—but that’s only part of it. She won’t speculate about the rest. I may just be minus any sensation except creepy, tingly—

And the door. I don’t quite run into the window. I’m not that hopeless. It comes up fast, but I turn in time, push through the door and bound up the steps.

I should watch where I’m going. Up, not down, though what I really want is to go down and out and away from this crap. I catch the inner railing and swing around. I wonder how long it’d take for them to miss me.

Probably a while if they missed me at all. They have a replacement. A better me. A me who can face herself in the mirror and not shrink away.

And up and catch and swing around and around…

How long has it been since I looked in the mirror and thought I was—?

I don’t remember.

Yeah, I’m jealous. I’m jealous that she has a life and I’ve been cast off like so much used, useless, broken, spent…

And for the extra, added, bonus funny: it might not suck so much if this little me wannabe had only slightly more personality than a pencil sharpener, but—

Part of me wants to get all stalkery and stupid. I want to see her in action ’cause the thing—

A door above me opens. I stop and tuck into a corner away from the open stairwell. They shouldn’t see me if they’re smart and head the other way.

But that’s just asking too much. The footfalls grow louder. Maybe if I keep my head down and my feet moving, I’ll be able to slip past.

A voice carries down the stairwell, “Linda said they carried…” the girl turns the corner and steps into view “…her in on a—” and like an amateur, I look up “—uh…” and freeze up…and yeah…Wet Blanket Buffy, she’s fun for all occasions. As gossip girl’s entourage piles up behind her, I see a familiar expression echoed three times. It’s not quite the same. Faint traces of recognition that grow stronger mingled with shock and something that might almost be horror.

Three times in one day…should I take a hint? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but really, I could live without the repeat. Faith’s reaction was enough. I blindsided her.

And them. They’re freaked. Faith’s freaked. Everyone who recognizes me flips out. Not exactly the reaction I’m looking for.

I ask, “Willow Rosenberg, where is she?” as the three girls try to slip past me, hugging the railing.

One of the quiet ones—the two of the three who didn’t get caught—looks over her shoulder, giving me a quick, quizzical glance before she replies, “Try room eight-twenty-three or eight-twenty-four. They’re both reserved for VIPs tonight.”

That’s right. I thought I heard something about the eighth floor, but I—well, I went for a walk. If this keeps up, I may go for another.

And keep going.

I smile and say, “Thanks,” as I turn to continue the climb.

Maybe with the ‘going’ I could find a good salon. I needed a trim and a touch up when I left musty ol’… and it’s amazing what a few weeks of living in a tree will do to your nails.

Going sounds even more appealing when I stop to consider this rationally, which admittedly isn’t my strong suit. But just putting the pieces together really isn’t that hard. I can do that. And where I end up is—

I glance as I pass by the next door. Seven. One more.

What I do know—the important part—to fool Faith like that—not that we were ever really what you’d call close, but—what with being enemies, she got to know me pretty well—to fool her, would-be me would have to do more than just play the part, she’d have to be in character all the time. She’d have to know the things I know, react the way I’d react. She’d have to be me for the reconciliation that’d have to happen to even—umm…

My brain feels like a pretzel. It’s a good thing I know what I mean. God help me if I ever have to explain that.

Anyway, whatever…that’s way too much to ask without an intervention of the wiccan kind. And there’s only one witch in the west I know who could pull that off, so it’s off to Oz I go.

All I need to know is: when did Willow plan to clue me in? It’s the question of the moment. One I’ve been avoiding. It makes me—

This is unbelievable! Why would she do that? There had to be a reason. A reasonable reason. One that—

Okay, so…make that: two questions…and a major case of crazy. I swear if this keeps up, cold cocking her won’t just be for bad girls.

There’s nothing like anger to shave time off a stroll. The last few flights of stairs are a vague and distant memory and me ‘hitting’ the door isn’t so much a figurative thing. I veer left when the door strikes its stop and swings back almost clipping me.

It’s bad enough she can hear everything I think. I remember when we had boundaries. Normal human boundaries. My deepest, darkest secrets were still deep and dark. Every random thought didn’t provoke a reaction. It was—

I glance at a couple of room numbers—eight-ten, eight-oh-eight—and turn around. That’s the trouble with letting inanimate objects make your decisions. Just past the stairs, movement catches my eye. A door swings in. It’s Willow. She’s all evasive and blushy when I enter the room. A room that’s, again, not exactly what I expect. That many books are never a good sign. I ignore them and go straight for the stuff that matters. There was a cookie jar and she got there first. She tried to hide it, but I—

Willow replaces Faith in my mind. I see the two of them—her and the wannabe, curled up all snuggly—with the sweatiness and the—

You slept with her, didn’t you?

In a heartbeat, Will goes from shamefaced to fit to be tied. “What?” she exclaims. “No! How could you even—?”

Leave it to me to jump to the worst possible conclusion. It was a reasonable one…for the complete narcissist. She didn’t want me, so…

I hate my brain. “Sorry, it’s just…” It’s not my fault, I swear. You were the one who—

As excuses go…this one might be the lamest one ever, but—

This whole thing started with The Way We Were and a box of Triscuits. I love that movie. Which is, of course, why I fell asleep. Next thing I knew I was being rousted off the couch and told to get ready. I hadn’t done anything in weeks, so needless to say the knockoff came as a bit of a shock.

It’s not my fault that seduction is the foregone conclusion when an evil twin shows up. It’s either that or the embezzlement of funds I don’t have or the covert takeover of a company I don’t own. I didn’t make up the rules. “Is she evil?” I ask. She has to be evil. No one could look that good after we went through and—

“Huh?” Will looks confused. “No.”

Okay, well…don’t blame me. You were the one who told me to veg. Part of me still wonders if Megan and Brian will ever hook up. And another part wishes I could rescue the damsel of the week with a stick of chewing gum, a pipe cleaner, a lump of charcoal and a funny, foldy pair of pliers.

I should so get some of those. They were cool.


I sigh and have a seat.

Comedy of Errors my butt. Shakespeare’s got nothing on us.

Willow’s smirk fades. We stare at each other across a mound of books. Déjà vu. I glance at the nearest title: Brain Injury Medicine: Principles and Practice. That’s less than helpful.

I stifle my curiosity and mimic her, ‘I see the moon and the moon sees me. The moon sees the somebody I'd like to see.’ Her expression sours. ‘Goddess bless the moon and Goddess bless me. Goddess bless the somebody I'd like to see.’ She knows I’m making fun of her.

Really, I just know what she’s doing. She does it all the time. Sometimes she does it so loud it—it’s like it bleeds through. Totally weird.

Before she reacts, I break the silence, shouting, “I don’t believe you! When were you planning to tell me?”

“Tell you?” she replies, aghast. “Tell you what? You were the one who asked us to—”

It’s my turn to stammer, “I did what?”

She says, “You said ‘make it right’.”

Huh? As explanations go, this one’s a little wanting. I try again, “Make what right?” I can’t believe—this is my fault? You’re trying to put this off on me? “If this is your version of a—”

She springs to her feet, shoving the table and shouting, “Oh, for pity’s sake!” A book falls to the floor with a flapping, page-slapping thud. She turns away. Her hand goes to her head in an ‘oh, so dramatic’ gesture of disbelief. I push the table back as she combs her fingers though her hair and rants, “I can’t believe you don’t remember.”

I bend down to pick up—uh…what’s psychopathology? I’ve heard of it, but right now, all I’ve got is it’s heavy. No surprise. Any book that says ‘Oxford’ on the cover usually weighs a ton.

She faces me, glaring as I flatten the folded pages and heft it back onto the pile. Her hair slips through her fingers. “No, wait,” she fumes. “I can. This is just like you.”

I resist the urge to flip the table over. Choices, choices…

Breaking stuff really isn’t an option. I could. As flimsy as this place is, I could probably break enough stuff to give us a free ride to the ground floor, but—

“Uh…” Yeah. I roll my eyes. “That’s right,” I mutter. “Forgive me. I forgot who I was talking to.” I turn away. That doorway looks awfully tempting. I could go. And I could keep going. Hop a portal, get back to Scotland, grab Bernadine and bail. A nice, long, terrifying, death-defying ride would sure feel good right about now. I could be in—

She’d stop me. I wouldn’t make it out the door, not if she didn’t want me to.

Or there’s plan B: I could just sit here, admit I screwed up—because I always do—and accept whatever she’s willing to share.

“It’s my fault,” I admit because B is just the better plan. I bring this shit on myself all the time. “I was bored. You know how I get when I’m bored. So I said to myself, ‘What can I do to make things more interesting? Oh, I know! I’ll make another Buffy because one of me just isn’t enough’.”

Nice, ripe opening like that, I expect lots of deprecation. Instead, she asks, “You really don’t remember do you?”

“No,” I admit. I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to be remembering.

“Of course not,” she says. “Why would you?”

Go figure. She’s all about the snark now, dramatic pauses, and rhetorical questions.

I mumble, “You’re gonna have to simple things up for us slow kids.” But she’s way too miffed to let me get a word in edgewise. “Y’know, the ones of us who don’t know what everyone else is thinking.” And I’m too stubborn to shut up, so…

Ah, communication. She said something about ‘last year.’ I dunno. Blah, blah, blah…

Her foot taps the floor keeping time with my ‘blahs.’ “That’s right,” she affirms, “last year.”

I prop my elbow on the table and take my head in hand. Teach me, oh wise one.

And that goes over so well. If I don’t turn this around…

I counter her withering glare with my best ‘patient face’ and wait, doing math in my head to pass the time. One plus two is three. Two and three are five, five and six are eleven, eleven and twelve are twenty-three, twenty-three and twenty-four are forty-seven…

Her expression turns incredulous, which is honestly preferable to rage. Rage on her is just plain scary. I always expect to end up somewhat smaller and furrier when she gets like this. Hasn’t happened yet, but there’s always tomorrow. It’s good to have goals.

Forty-seven and forty-eight are ninety-five, ninety-five and ninety-six are, umm…one-ninety-one, one-ninety-one and one-ninety—

“It’s been almost a year since the mission,” she says. “We started prepping in June.” There’s a little ‘grrr’ left on her face, but her tone is steeped in patience. That means that she’s—

Oh. June? Last June? That was when we were—they sent me to Cairo. I thought it was gonna be neat. Like an actual vacation. I figured some light shopping, a little sightseeing…

Boy, was I ever wrong. It was my only erroneous vacation last year, which is as close to a vacation as I got. Wonders of the World became me wondering what in the world…

My lips are still pursed from the ‘oh’ when Willow takes her seat. I smile sheepishly. I guess I said it. I didn’t mean to.

They introduced me to this little, dark-haired girl. Kind of cute. Sweet. Shy. I laughed later when they told me she’d volunteered to be a decoy. She didn’t look anything like me. I mean, she was a similar build, but the rest—

It seemed like a lot of trouble to go through…for them. For me it was—

I went to Egypt and saw a whole lot of the same four walls. Took test after stupid test and didn’t see a single pyramid, just a whole lot of pattern recognition and logic puzzles. There were even inkblots. I vowed that I’d crack the skull of the first person who asked me about my mother. And sneaking off wasn’t even—

Every time I tried, it ended the same way: I’d wake up in my bed with no clue how I got there.

From the cryptic load of crap Giles’s people told me and the churning of my brain, I didn’t need a diagram. I remembered stuff I hadn’t thought about in years. I was a rat in maze. Without cheese. There was no reward at the end for a job well done, just a whole lot of analysis and dissection.

They were monitoring me. And not the usual, medical way, but magically. I hated it. I felt violated. It was like my brain had somehow become the intellectual property of Slayer, Inc. When really, ‘my brain’ and ‘intellectual’ shouldn’t even be used in the same sentence.

Willow smiles. It’s distracting. She has such a pretty smile. And infectious, but fleeting. The last thing I am is happy.

It took me a while, but I managed to put it all together. The gist of the sitch was that they were making a disposable me—to bring them—whoever this mystery ‘them’ was—into the fight on our side.

The idea of a ‘disposable me’ was sickening, but there wasn’t a lot I could do. If I could’ve had it my way, I would’ve just gone myself. It seemed so much simpler. But ‘go where’? Without that detail—

And Giles wasn’t having any of it. He said it was too dangerous. How dangerous could a negotiation be? I figured he just thought I’d screw it—

Dangerous,” Willow says, totally derailing my train of thought.

“Yeah,” I mumble. I might’ve gone off and done something stupid. Like that’d be the end of the world.

Or even anything new. Me doing something stupid usually stops the world from ending.

None of it made a bit of difference. Not that I can tell. Nothing’s changed.

I got to play seat-warmer for a couple of weeks, feel useless and pound on some different girls. They let me train. Some vacation.

And when it all went sideways, they let me clean up the mess. That made no sense either. They want to protect me, but hairy extractions were still on the menu?

It was completely senseless.

“No it wasn’t,” Will replies. “It all makes perfect sense when you take into account the fact that your mystery ‘they,’ the Slogath, aren’t the sort of creatures who send polite rejection letters. They have a slightly different definition of the word ‘no’ than we do.”

“So you knew about this?” I ask, quickly tacking on, “You were there from the start?” as an afterthought.

Yes, I knew,” she replies, “and no, not really.”

Of course you did. I want to ask how she could ‘not really’ be somewhere, but I know better.

She gives me one of those looks. Her patience is wearing thin. I have to remember that it’s not just me. She can hear the thoughts of everyone in the building. Maybe on the whole block. I don’t see how she does it. I couldn’t think straight with all that—

“It isn’t easy,” she replies. “I got used to being alone.” She gets up to shut the door.

I hear ‘lonely’ too, but she doesn’t say that. I just know her well enough to understand that all of the isolation would be hard on her.

When she returns, the glamour is gone. My heart flutters. With that funny, crushy, head-rushy thing, it’s umm…

It’s totally embarrassing, but it can’t help it. She’s gorgeous. All silvery hair, creamy skin and shocking eyes… I remember to breathe.

Resting her elbow on the table, she takes her head in hand. A casual gesture that doesn’t quite fit. You’d think I’d get used to this, but—

“The Slogath are the sort of cranky that only comes with age,” she says, “like excessive age—like they’re ancient. With the out-of-the-way-ness of their home, they don’t exactly get a lot of social calls. People usually only seek them out when they want something, so they tend to take answers a little more seriously than we do. To them ‘no’ means that they’ve judged the petitioner false. The penalty for trying to hoodwink them is—”

“Oh, I know this one,” I interject. “Lemme guess. Death maybe?” I can’t resist.

“You know it,” she says. “Long, horrible, agonizing…”

It’s pretty obvious now why Giles didn’t tell me the truth. If I’d had the full picture, I would’ve—

“I know,” Willow replies. “You would’ve taken it badly. Giles wasn’t willing to sacrifice you for something that might turn out okay, regardless how good it could be for our cause, so…”

“So he sacrificed somebody else,” I say. “Nice.” All the contempt I feel translates to a snicker, an eye roll and another, “Really nice.” That hardly seems adequate. I may get around to expressing my gratitude next time I see Giles.

I look down at my hands where they rest on the fake wooden table, remembering. I was still half lit from the fight. Almost shaking. The blood, the gore…the shame that the blood and the gore were even a thing. You’d think I’d be over that by now, but my shirt was sticking to me and the smell…

And hey, my hand is almost my hand again. A few spots are still pink and tender. Being flayed is a blast. It takes forever to heal, even for me.

Reports of my double’s death had been slightly exaggerated. You’ll have that with demons. They can’t seem to get it through their thick heads that even after we stop breathing there’s still hope. Of course, hearing that was no less a treat, even if it was a little premature.

I sat behind the pilot, cattycorner to the door. I was staring at the ground as we took off. It moved away, but I could still see everything that was going on in front of me. It was like looking in a mirror. It felt like that, only my reflection was in really bad shape. The girls were working on her, doing CPR.

At the same time I was watching myself—sort of—it felt like I was watching Faith too. Faith bleeding and falling. The truck driving away. One thing called to the other. I have no idea why. But to make the parallels that much harder to take, the girl ended up in a coma too. Sharp, sharp knives…

God, what was her name? I rub my eyes, like that might somehow magically shake the information loose. Needless to say, it doesn’t. And Will doesn’t either. She’d normally be all over being helpful about producing the missing fact, but I guess I’m not supposed to remember. It feels pretty awful that I can’t, so I distract myself by asking, “Does Faith know any of this?” It seems like she should. They have so much in common.

I look up when Willow replies, “I don’t know.” She gives me weak, sympathetic smile. “Probably not. Not unless you told her, but I sort of missed a few things—what with being unconscious.”

She’s right. I don’t understand. I totally missed it. I vaguely remember telling Giles to make it better. Do whatever. I can’t even remember when that happened.

But it wasn’t like I wanted to. Thinking about it sucked.

The blinds are closed. I get up to open them, mostly because sitting still is making me crazy. I go to the wrong end. Figures. The fabricy plastic slats swing, swish and clatter as I try the other side and find the stupid cord. I pull on it and there’s a great big city out there to distract me.

Or more like a little itty-bitty bit of a great big city reflected in the windows of the building across the lot. Guess that’ll have to do. I return to my chair.

Yeah, I don’t remember when that was. It’s been a few months ago, maybe?

Willow waits patiently for me to be seated before she says, “I wish I could do that.”


“Forget,” she replies.

I reply through a laugh, “I’d share if I could.”

She laughs with me and for a moment we’re fine. It’s rare, but it happens. I enjoy the peace for everything it’s worth.

It only lasts long enough for her to collect her thoughts and say, “We did everything we could.” She swallows, giving me the distinct impression that she isn’t proud of this. “But you have to understand. It wasn’t that simple. The physical changes were all just that. Those could be done using techniques similar to plastic surgery, but not nearly so messy.”

I glance at the books and understand exactly why she’s still here. There’s a theme. Everything here that isn’t weird, nameless or magicky, is about the effects of brain damage, brain mapping, abnormal physiology…that’s what that means—psychopathology—I remember now. She must be worried that something’s gone wrong with my—

“That’s exactly why,” she replies.

I start to ask, “But wha—”

“It’s complicated,” she interrupts before I even get the ‘why’ out. “I just need you to be patient, okay?”

And I had a whole question. It was even a good one. Damned if I remember it now.

“Me?” I reply through a snicker. “Sure” I smile. “But of the two of us, which one of us is actually being impatient?”

“You’re right,” she says. “I’m sorry. It’s just…” She breathes out through her nose. It’s not really a sigh. “The mental changes were extremely complicated—” Not a snicker. “—if not convoluted. To understand, you really need to know everything I did and why I did it.” Or a snort. “And that’s gonna take time.” It’s more of a hiss. A hiss that’s rife with the very thing she’s accusing me of.

It leaves me yearning for some instant clueage. That’s what she wants. She wants this to be over…and me to—

“That isn’t what I want,” she insists.

“I don’t see why not,” I reply. “It’d be so much easier.” I have to look away, but when I look out the window I can still see her. Beige walls, crap mall store prints and closet doors aren’t—so, I look down, like my own mangled hand is any more comfort. “I know you can. This could just be over. You put enough of me into some stranger’s head to fool Faith. Why can’t you just—?”

She could do this. I could go for a walk, take some time to deal and not come back until I can look her in the eye again. It might save what’s left of our friendship. Because sitting here listening to a play-by-play really isn’t working for me.

It’s strange to look up and see tears in her eyes. Wiping them away with the sides of her thumbs, she says, “Because I don’t want to.” She gets up. “Because you’re my friend.” I turn to watch as she makes her way to the door. “I want to explain. I feel like I owe you that much.”  She opens it and steps into the hall. “It’s not what you think.”

As the door swings shut, I mumble, “It might’ve mattered if you’d come clean before you got caught. Now it’s just—”

Now what?

I guess I wait. I twiddle my fingers, tapping my nails on the table.



Three times.

Okay. I’m bored.

I get up and pick up a stack of books. I’m sick of looking at them. There’s a long, skinny table along the wall to my left—like a sideboard, only this is a conference room, so I’m not sure what to call it. For now, it’s a bookshelf. I move one book short of five stacks of five books to the table, wondering how she got them all here. I know they’re hers. I even recognize one of the nameless ones with the funny symbols. Probably a few at a time and ‘poof.’

She’s been busy trying to help. That’s the thing I need to obsess over.

I sit down to enjoy a significantly less cluttered table. Moving around had the desired effect. I feel a whole lot less like I need to hit something now.

Whatever happened, I know she’d do her best to protect me. I need to give her a chance. The truly messed up part is that, regardless how twisted his methods were, Giles was doing the same. This is about the road to hell and all that.

The door opens.

I just hope the trip was worth it.

“I’m sorry,” she says, returning to her seat with a box of Kleenex in hand. “You’re right. I should’ve explained earlier.”

“No, it’s fine,” I reply. “That much I get. I really don’t need to hear how easy it is to put off stuff that has a high potential for drama.” I feel a stupid smirk coming on. I should stop it, but whatever. I’m going to be nice. “Oh, and by the way…unless you’ve got some furniture for me to move, this is as cool as I’m gonna get so you should start talking.”
She lets out a sigh that comes from somewhere around her toenails. “Alright,” she says, “but I really can’t make this quick. Like I said, it’s complicated.”

Asking, “How ’bout quickish?” gets me a shrug, so I go to the window. Maybe if I let her talk…

“Just pretending wouldn’t work,” she says. “The double could’ve been the best actress in the world, she could’ve studied you for months, it wouldn’t have mattered. The Slogath would’ve sensed the deception. We couldn’t use magic either. Not really. They would’ve known. They might even be able to match the magical signature with the witch. What I’ve read about them suggests that’s the case.”

This is going well. She’s barely started and already on my last nerve. I’ve heard newsmen get more emotional over Dow Jones Industrials and SMP Averages…whatever they are. I want to get over it, but truth is—

No. I was giving her a chance. That’s the truth. Just ’cause I don’t like how she says what she says…

Lights glint off of the glass of the neighboring building. I fixate on one that’s blinking.

I’m not gonna like it. It wouldn’t matter if she went all Lillian Gish over it. I still wouldn’t like it.
“So we had to find another way,” she says. “What we ended up using was hypnosis. Or that was part of it.”

’Kay, so…this really isn’t working. No one asked me what I thought. Not even once. They used me to make a double and they sent her off to die for some meaningless—

“That’s true,” she says, “to a point.”

“What point?” I ask. I wish she’d stop that.

“We made a double,” she replies. “That’s the only part of what you said that’s actually true.”

It’d be nice have a thought without the color commentary. It’d be even nicer if she could tell the difference between something I thought and something—

“Have you ever heard the expression ‘I’d just love to be a fly on the wall’?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I reply. “Who hasn’t? What’s your point?”

“We have that now,” she says. I turn to look over my shoulder. She’s twisted in her chair looking at me. She sees my expression and grins. My forehead’s all scrunchy. As I take another deep breath to shed some unwanted tension, she continues, “That’s what this was about. Because of the Slogath, we have access to that sort of information.”

The whole ‘deep, cleansing breath’ thing’s total bunk. My forehead just scrunches again. “Okay, so…you’re gonna have to help me out,” I break mid-question to scrunch my eyes to maybe unscrunch my forehead. Great. Now she’s giving me a funny look. I ask my question anyway, “How’s that work exactly?” Making funny faces always works like a charm when I want someone to take me seriously.

Her reply seriously doesn’t help, “The Slogath are an ancient race of sentient bugs.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me.” It’s out and said before I—

“No. I’m not,” she replies as I crack up and face the window. I think I’ve officially heard it all now. “Think about it.” She sounds completely unaffected. “Their network of informants is pretty impressive—in a not-so-impressive occasionally ‘creepy crawly’ sort of way. There’s nowhere they can’t go completely unnoticed.”

I’m tempted to ask what kind of bugs ’cause try as I might the best I can come up with are Latino cockroaches with maracas.

Oh! Or Jiminy Cricket! He totally had that ‘James Bond’ vibe going on, rocking the top hat and tails.

She said something else and I totally missed it. Something about ‘the arctic’?  

“I said that they aren’t much good in the arctic,” she says. “But who lives there?” Her expression suggests I should stop. Eyebrow cocked, with the smirk and…

Yeah, I’m being silly. There’s been way too much TV in my life lately. And that’s still her fault. Okay, here’s something I can ask, “By ‘sentient’ you mean ‘I think therefore I am’?”

“They’re a highly intelligent, telepathic, magical race that just happens to be gastropod mollusks.” She stops mid-discourse to give me one of those crooked, crinkly little ‘you’re being silly’ kind of smirks. “But there was this story you wanted me to tell you. You were kind of in a hurry. Can I continue now?”

Now I’m confused. Not about the second part. She’s totally right about that. “Mollusks?” I ask. “You mean like octopuses? They aren’t bugs.” This thing with my brow is past old. “And we were miles from the ocean.” I cover my mouth and yawn just for the stretching.

I look up and she’s hanging her head. She rubs her eyes with one hand, pausing to pinch the bridge of her nose. I may be pushing it. That’s sign language for ‘my brain is reaching critical mass.’

Still pinching, she says, “You’re right, technically they aren’t bugs in the ‘insect’ sort of sense, but they are pests…and invertebrates—the squishy, slimy kind, not the creepy crawly, crunchy kind.”

I’d prefer to skip that ‘critical mass’ thing, but— “What?”

“Slugs, Buffy,” she says.



When she finally gets around to looking at me instead of the floor, I reply to her question, “Sure. Go ahead. Knock yourself out.” I think I’m safe. We’ve hit that point. Nothing she can say could possibly top this.

And I think I’m over leaning against the window. The glass is sticking to my arm and it’s chilly. The combo’s weird and icky. As I return to my chair, she says, “The double was pregnant when she returned.” I roll my eyes and take a seat. Now she’s just messing with me.

She insists, “No, I’m serious.” Her face lights with a smile. “Well, okay, not pregnant pregnant. Not in the conventional sense. The fairies, from my tree—they hatched while she was in the hospital.”

Okay, this is just too absurd. “Hatched? From where?” I get that out and the giggles take over. I can’t stop. That’s okay though ’cause she’s giggling too.

“No clue,” she replies with a shrug. “I think there are just certain things we’re better off not knowing, but they came from her. That’s the only thing that makes sense.” Her face is red from laughing…and trying not to. She takes a deep breath. “It was a mess,” she says. “I got this call at like four o’clock in the morning. They didn’t have a clue what to do.” She cracks up again. “Like I’d know. I agreed to help and arrived to a hospital ward full of Tinkerbells.”

This is just too funny.

“No, no, actually it wasn’t,” she says. “You can’t imagine the damage control. Fairies are highly magical creatures—like the ‘we turn people into goats’ kind of magic. You may not think so, but they liked you.”

Well, thank goodness for small favors.

“I rounded them up and sent them to my place,” she says. “I didn’t know where else to put them. It was a couple weeks before I could even go home without the biting and the zapping. I wasn’t exactly nice about how I rounded them up. It took me a while to make peace.”

“Sounds like I missed a lot,” I say, hoping she’ll keep going. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her like this.

“Yeah,” she says, turning sullen. “It’s been—”

When she stops short, I fill in, “Not-much-fun?”

“Something like that,” she replies.

It’s over. I ask one more thing in hopes of seeing her smile again, “What’s the difference between a fairy and a pixie?” I was totally getting that wrong.

She answers my question with a question, “What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly?” which is cool because it completely clears that up.

“You were right,” she says, “The entire time you were in Cairo, they were scanning you. What you didn’t know is that I was scanning them.”

Something occurs to me. I have to ask, “But you said that they didn’t know me. The fairies, I mean. They’d recognize her, right? My double?” Their mommy’s my twin. You’d think—

“They don’t see the same way we do,” she replies.

Oh…’kay…that’s about as clear as mud. And my brow’s all crinkly again. At this rate I’ll have worry lines by the time I’m thirty.

She tries again, “More light, less shadow.”

I raise my hand, palm up. Clueless. It seems like even if they didn’t see the same thing we see, they’d still see the same thing. Umm…

She hangs her head and shakes it, rolling her eyes. “You really don’t want to talk about this do you?”

I reply, “Yeah, I want to know,” and quickly correct, “Well, I’m not comfortable with what we’re talking about. That much should be apparent. But it’s not that. I’m just curious.”
She says, “Alright,” but it really isn’t. “From what I’ve been able to gather, what they see is sort of like infrared only with more depth and different colors, but the same idea.”

“So they see, like, auras?” I ask. That’s the only people-related, colorful, glowy thing I can think of.

“Yeah, something like that,” she replies.

“Okay, that tracks, I guess,” I say and put on my very best ‘attentive’ face. Even so, it takes her a few to move on. She must be waiting on my next annoying question. I’m done. I swear.

She looks skeptical, but she nods and says, “My job was what you might think of as quality control. I picked what to use. Your personality was grafted in her mind one thought at a time. All of the little things that make you, you. Physical, mental and verbal ticks…and all of the things that made them. Insignificant things, like the fact that most of the expressions you regularly make, you’ve rehearsed in a mirror. You’ve spent hours training your face to—”

Okay, so…I lied. This just begs to be asked. “So, you made Sybil?” I can’t help it.

“I guess,” she replies, pausing to ponder. “Yeah. I hadn’t really thought of it like that. There were only the two personalities. Sybil had like thirteen and none of them were so fully developed. But yeah, that’s kind of what we did.”

And it didn’t occur to you that that might end badly?

No surprise. Just thinking that makes her grumpy. I should so chill.

“It isn’t like you think,” she says. “I get why you’re taking this the way you are, but it’s not like we set out to—” She stops cold and huffs a frustrated sigh.   

I don’t see how she can expect me to see this any other way. Nothing’s changed. They still used me.

“No we didn’t,” she snaps. “Not the way you think. It’s just hard—” Disgust gets the better of her again. “I can’t explain this all at once.” Nice that she recovers.

I bite my tongue, ’cause if I don’t, this is gonna end badly. We’re about t-minus ten seconds from blowing up. The tension’s palpable. That happens, I’ll stomp out of here and spend the rest of the night sulking. And who knows how long after wondering if she’ll ever talk to me again. Eventually, maybe, one day, we’ll make up and she’ll tell me what she wants to tell me now.

Or I could skip that and take on the epic, impossible challenge of learning some self control.

I have to at least try. Living with her is just infuriating sometimes. But living without her is even worse. The idea of returning to a life of chronic isolation interrupted only by scheduled fisticuffs scares me.

Simple and predictable are what she needs from me, so back to mindless math I go. One plus two is three, two plus three is five, three plus five is eight, five plus eight is thirteen, eight plus thirteen is twenty-one, thirteen plus twenty-one is thirty-four…

And Willow surfaces again. “You know how it is when you read a story?”

I know what it is to read a story, but I don’t see—

“It has everything to do with this,” she insists, so I let it go. “That’s all we have to offer these girls when they first come to us. And just like when you read a story, they read your story and they try to put themselves in your place. They imagine how it would be…all the things you’ve experienced.”

I, er, umm—

“Is it really any wonder that they’re awestruck when they meet you? Look at all the things you’ve done.”


Y’know, this’d be a whole lot easier—no, no, it wouldn’t. The fact that she’s grinning at me is just—


“It’s true,” she replies. “All we offered her was the same thing we offer everyone else. The thing you have to understand is that it’s just one small, delusional step to go from admiration to emulation.”

Will gets up and walks over to a set of folding doors along the wall to my left. “And that’s what I did,” she says. “I pushed her.”

Here I thought that was a closet. It’s a coffee bar. And that couldn’t be more welcome.

“I’m your friend, Buffy,” she says. “I’d never use you like that. Not unless—”

Not unless I asked.

A flurry of clicks, taps and one random, shrill squeak accompany her answer, “Right,” and her quest for coffee. “I guess, I mean, even then it wasn’t easy. I knew you didn’t really know what you were asking.” But I really doubt this has much to do with coffee. She’s using being busy to cover up the fact that she’s jumpy.

She moves on to the drawers below the counter and hits pay dirt, at least with the filters. “I gave her enough structure to make the things she imagined feel real, the same way a dream can seem real. Once everything was in place, we used hypnosis to make her believe she was you.”

The coffee’s in the next drawer. Can’t say I’m thrilled to see foilish bags of that preground, prepackaged, premeasured stuff. I’m pretty sure coffee shouldn’t have that much in common with potato chips.

And there’s also that thing they say about beggars.

“But you know how hypnosis is,” she says, tearing the foil baggie open and filling the filter basket. “We could’ve made her believe she was a dog or chicken or whatever and she would’ve been convinced.” I’m not sure that coffee’s what she needs right now, but she hasn’t dropped or spilled anything, so…

She pushes a button on the front of the coffeemaker. It hisses and sputters as she returns to her seat.

There’s something about this that doesn’t fit. I ask, “You said that the witches were scanning me. If you were making all of the decisions and changes, why were they even involved?”

“Giles didn’t believe me,” she says. “He wasn’t convinced I could do what I said I could do.” Her brow crinkles. “Not that he didn’t think I couldn’t do it. He just didn’t think it was possible. I tried to tell him it was, but you know how he is.”

“I do,” I reply, “but I could’ve done without the extra attention.” A coven of witches playing around in my head is—

“I know,” she says. “That’s why we argued.”

I get up and go to the window to give her some space. As I lean close to the glass, she says, “Really, the double’s belief in her own authenticity was the important thing. That was the falsehood we needed to hide. He didn’t see it that way. He thought that mimicking your thought patterns and behaviors was more important. I tried to tell him that if I made my thing work, his thing would follow.”  

Looking down and to the right, I find the street. Wet pavement glistens in the lights of a passing car. The angle’s just right so that if I focus, I can also see a ghost of the room reflected in the glass.

She twists in her chair to watch me again. “I did my thing by shoring that up,” she says, “the authenticity thing. I gave her enough information that she stopped acting the way she thought you would act and started acting like you. It was nifty. The only way I could tell that she wasn’t you was when what she remembered was colored by her own experiences. But I was there, so I could pick that out.” She gets up. “And well, I’m a telepath.”

The coffeemaker’s still burbling away, but she has her heart set on fidgeting. I turn around to lean against the glass as she goes to the counter. She takes a couple of cups from a tray and turns them over.

“All of the magical signatures faded in time, leaving behind only what we wanted. With a word and a touch, Giles could bring the ‘Buffy’ personality to the surface. When the mission was over, he should’ve been able to trigger the original personality to come forward again, so we could remove the other. Or that was the plan before…”

I get it.

Her temper flares. She snaps, “Do you?” She turns to glare at me, long and hard.

I feel like a total heel. Worse, I’m not even sure what I did, and that makes me mad ’cause really, blaming me for any of this is like blaming the dead guys for Frankenstein’s Monster.

Her expression loses its edge. Maybe she gets it. “She was broken when she came to me,” she says. “The others tried, but they only made things worse. They didn’t understand. They were trying to make her more like you. They thought that’d help.”

I guess she just needs to be mad at someone. I let it go.

She says, “She isn’t you.”

I get that.

“Do you?” she snaps. “’Cause it sure doesn’t seem that way to me.”

Why that sets her off again—?

“You keep going over the same ground, saying or thinking that she’s a copy, like I took every thought in your head and put them into hers. That’s not what I did.”


And to make matters that much more confusing she holds up a thing of powdered creamer. Radical topic shift anyone? When I roll my eyes and shrug, giving her the universal palms up, ‘if that’s all there is,’ go ahead, she faces the counter.

She measures the antidotes for mediocre coffee as she continues, “When she finally became my responsibility, I wanted nothing more than to put her back the way she was. They basically screwed her up even more, then dumped her on my doorstep and said ‘fix it.’ Everyone said ‘fix it,’ even you.”

She glances over her shoulder to gauge my reaction. “Can you even begin to appreciate what ‘fix it’ might’ve entailed?”

I have no idea. That’s not really my department. I can guess it wasn’t easy, but from there I’d probably stand a better chance of finagling Clem a spot in the next Chippendale’s calendar than actually understanding.

She’s sick of waiting, so she goes for the standard switch and pour. One of the cups replaces the pot. “She wanted to be you,” she says, pausing to deal with the post-pour cup swap. “Between all of the well meaning people and her, she’d been pushed so far in that direction that there wasn’t any turning back. I tried.”

When she places my cup on the table, I take the hint and return to my seat.

“But she wouldn’t move forward either,” she says, finishing up with the stirring and the wiping up. “She was in an induced coma when I got her. Awake she was confused, unresponsive, uncooperative and prone to violent outbursts.”

She takes her seat and has a sip of her coffee. The lack of icky faces is probably a decent sign.

As I blow, enjoying the rich, yummy steam from my cup and the warmth in my hands—which are both likely to be the best parts of the whole experience—she says, “I did the best I could.” At least there’s that. “I started with the small stuff. She needed orthopedic surgery. Her right knee and ankle had both been broken and—due to the kindness of the NHS—left to heal the way they were.”

Imagining Willow with her nose in an anatomy textbook, fixing the ‘small stuff’ isn’t a stretch.
“Her prognosis had been less than hopeful, so they didn’t bother with any of the extraneous stuff,” she says. “They just drilled holes in her skull to relieve the pressure and limit brain damage. And they repaired her internal injuries to give her a fighting chance, but they really didn’t help her. She wasn’t expected to live.” She pauses to take another sip of her coffee. “But you know the story too well. She healed faster than anyone expected, etcetera, etcetera and so on.”

I chance a sip of my coffee. It’s basically unscorched, unscary gas station coffee.

“I was thinking ‘diner coffee’,” she says with a shrug, “but yeah…”

Diners usually serve cream that wouldn’t pass for a serving of vegetables in a school lunch program.

She smirks and snickers and shrugs again. All of the above are cute, but not really constructive. This is spiraling. We must be getting dangerously close to the fun stuff if she’s this distracted by small talk. Or umm…in my case ‘small thought.’

“Yeah, you’re right,” she admits and falls silent.

We sip our coffee, inspect the table, our nails, read our novelty mugs—mine’s from some place called ‘Fox and Hound’—clueless unless we’re talking Disney films—and generally accomplish a whole lot of nothing. I wish she’d just move on. But guess if silence can be even remotely comfortable for a telepath—

“She’s an orphan,” she says, “Did you know that?”

I look up. “No,” I reply. How could I? I don’t even remember her name.

Willow remains firmly intent on watching her coffee, the table or her hands. One of the above. Maybe all three. It’s impossible to tell. “Working with her was hard,” she says. “Not just because of her. It was me too. She brought a lot of stuff about me to the surface that I would’ve just as soon forgotten.” She laughs, but not really. It’s a little ‘humph’ of a thing with a twitch of a smile. “About being a latchkey kid.” The corners of her mouth twitch again. “All of the stupid things I did to seek approval.”

It didn’t even cross my mind that this might’ve been hard on her. I was too worried about myself. But it didn’t occur to me that she might’ve done this to protect me either.

I feel like an ass again. Go figure. I mumble, “I’m sorry,” and reach across the table, hoping she’ll meet me halfway.

She’s too lost in the narrative. “It took me a while to realize that that was exactly the problem.” Or I hope that’s it. “It’s strange how the answer can be right in front of you and you don’t even see it.”

Still hoping here.

She reaches for my hand. Affectionate gestures are really best with a touch of irony. Her fingers are really warm from clutching her mug. It feels nice.

“You gave her a mother who loved her unconditionally,” she says. “That’s what it took. She needed that stability to be right again.” Her attention turns from our hands to my eyes. “Now she’s one of three people who remember Joyce the way you do.” She makes a funny little noise, half laugh, half question, “Hum,” and gives me half a smile. “And two of them were constructed magically.”

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