Author: Michael Weyer

Title: A Mid-Life...Crisis?

Except for Robin Goodfellow, I don't own any of them.
Steven St Wolf created by Steve Pantovich
Shaw Hunter created by Tim Knight

Stuff to know:
1. Buffy died fighting the Master in season 1 and became Immortal. She has a love affair with demon hunter Steven St. Wolf and wields the blade Vampire Slayer.
2. Joyce Summers knows Buffy is the Slayer and is still alive.
3. Kendra did not die fighting Drusilla and is still a Slayer.
4. Faith has just been introduced and will not go to the dark side.
5. Willow, Cordelia, Amy and Jenny are Amazons. Xander, Oz and Giles have been empowered to an Amazon level by Robin Goodfellow.

A short ditty people have been asking about. Enjoy.


A Mid-Life...Crisis?

In which a mother undergoes some radical health benefits.

Headquarters of the Order of the Grail
February 6th, 1999
1234 Hours local time

"Soooo...." Xander Harris said as he took in the inside of the headquarters for the Order of the Grail. "Exactly when does Robin Hood swing in?"

His comment was understandable given the surroundings the Slayerettes found themselves in. The main hall of the Order measured 500 by 100 feet, the tall walls filled with banners, everything from the flags of nations to colors of clans to symbols that few of the group could recognize. The floor level was also filled with cases holding weapons, armor and more memorabilia from the Order's long existence.

"Steve, when you told me the place was big, I didn't know you meant 'we had to carve a big cavern under the Alps to fit it all in big!'" Buffy Summers said as she stared at her lover, Steven. St Wolf. The Immortal Demon Hunter was wearing a more dressed-up outfit than usual to give himself a professional air, something he had tried to impress upon the others, with mixed results.

"Honestly, Steve," Cordelia Chase added. "This is like some villain's lair from a James Bond movie!" The Amazon wore a dark designer dress that she felt was worth the impressive price. *Not like Dad's hurting for money at the moment* she thought as she brushed at her long dark hair.

"Sans the cool as hell laser cannon," Xander added. The young man wore as close to a good outfit as he could get, dark slacks and a pullover sweater that still seemed rumpled on him.

Steve let his eyes drift over the rest of the group. Willow Rosenberg was standing next to her boyfriend, Oz Green. The Amazon witch wore a nice red blouse and skirt that offset her red hair and Oz was surprisingly dapper in a pair of dark pants, shirt with jacket and even a tie. Not surprisingly, Rupert Giles looked perfectly at ease in a tweed suit, adjusting his tie as he walked. Next to him, Jenny Calendar wore a conservative but still attractive dark gown that showed off her nice shape. Amy Madison wore a bright green sweater and dark skirt, seeming a good match with Shaw Hunter. The half-elven priest had taken the idea of "dressing seriously" to the utmost, with a dark black sweater and darker pants contrasted by the ivory unicorn head pendant on a silver chain over her heart, brushing her long dark hair back, her eyes somewhat wide as she looked about the room. Buffy was dressed in a much nicer outfit than she usually had on, a bright dress in place of her usual fighting pants and jacket. Next to her, her mother, Joyce Summers, was dressed in a business-like outfit, a tan skirt and jacket over her white blouse with a ring of pearls. Randi Jessup was dressed in an elegant yellow outfit that perfectly matched her long blonde hair.

And then there were the three people who looked on the outs from the rest of the group. Kendra McPhereson wore a dark black skirt and long boots with a purple top, not exactly the best formal wear. At least she seemed comfortable in it, unlike her fellow Slayer, Faith Pryce. The Boston-bred brunette seemed to be itching inside the dark pants, light shirt and jacket she wore, a far cry from the casual wear she was used to. As usual, no one could hold a candle to Robin Goodfellow. Despite Steve's emphasizing the class of the situation, Robin was dressed in a wild suit made almost entirely out of red (even the shoes) marred only by a black shirt with red jacket and tie, his long red coat flowing behind him.

"I can't believe we're doing this," Willow muttered. "I just can't believe we're doing this. My mom would have a heart attack at this."

"What?" Buffy asked the redhead. "That you're about to take a sip from the Holy Grail to extend your lifespan?"

Willow shook her head. "No, that I'm about to do something that's long been viewed as strictly Christian."

"Oh, Lord, let's not get onto the theological debates again..." Giles groaned. "I already had to put up with it on the plane ride over here."

"So, we take a drink from this cup and bam, we live forever?" Faith smiled. "Wow, I'm kinda liking hooking up with you guys!"

Steve stopped and turned to Faith. "Let me explain this one more time," he patiently said. "The Grail doesn't make you Immortal. If you're killed in an accident or a fight, you will die. It also doesn't mean you live forever. It freezes your age at what you're at now and then you age very slowly but remain totally healthy."

"So, it cures the common cold?" Xander asked.

"Well, there are limits," Steve shrugged. "But this is something that allies of the Grail are entitled to and you all qualify."

"Even me?" Joyce was still in a bit of shock from the moment Buffy had made her this offer and it had yet to fully wear off. She had gotten used to a lot from her daughter's life but being offered a chance to stay young for centuries was pretty much the topper. She had been mostly quiet during the plane ride over and was feeling a little overwhelmed by her surroundings.

"Yes, Joyce, even you," Steve told her. "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe and the benefits are definitely worth it."

"Says the man who died old enough so he won't get carded at bars for centuries," Randi muttered. She suddenly straightened, as did Steve and Buffy as they felt the presence of another Immortal close by. They all turned to see the figure coming toward them.

She appeared to be in her twenties but with the air of someone far older. Her long black hair framed an attractive face and she wore a quite professional dark suit, a sword hung by her side. She offered up a nod as she came up to the group. "Mr. St. Wolf," she stated. "Good to meet you at last. I'm------"

"Kate the Skate!" Robin yelled out. "Hey, good to see you again, Iron Woman!"

Kate turned to stare in puzzlement at the faery. She squinted, then her eyes widened. "I don't believe it..." she whispered. Her face broke out into a smile as she laughed. "Robin? Good Lord, what are you doing here?" She walked over to embrace the faery, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

"Ah, long story," Robin said as he hugged her back. "Good to see you again. It's been a few centuries."

"Indeed it has," Kate nodded. Her eyes twinkled at Robin. "And how is that mad Irish bastard?"

"You know Liam," Robin laughed. "Still doing what he does and with a style none but me can match."

Kate snorted. "And exactly how many wives has he had since me?"

Robin made a show of thinking up a number and Kate just rolled her eyes. "Human or faery, there's still no getting a straight answer out of you," she remarked.

"She knows Robin all right," Amy remarked, giving the Immortal who had just kissed her boyfriend an evil eye.

Robin turned to Amy and raised an eyebrow. "Show a little respect, Amy," he said. He motioned toward Kate. "You are looking at the woman who designed the Grail armor."

Kate smiled at the looks of surprise and awe on the faces of the others, including Steve. "So, you're the one..." he muttered. "The way they talk about you, I thought you were a legend."

"I try to live up to it," Kate remarked. "You're carving out a bit of a legend yourself, St. Wolf."

"Yes, inflate his ego more, he needs that," Robin remarked. He shook his head, then became aware of everyone staring at him. "What?"

Jenny sighed as she looked at Kate. "I assume this is a first?" she asked. "Amazons in the Order's Headquarters?"

Kate shook her head. "No, actually, we have had a few Amazons in the Order over the centuries," she said. "But I personally hold no prejudices. I've studied the Greek and Roman mythologies quite well. I have no problems with you following a virgin goddess."

Robin immediately burst out into a long and prolonged spate of laughter, bending over and holding his sides as he howled. He sank onto the floor, pounding on it with his fist, tears erupting from his eyes as he cackled. "Virgin.... Artemis as a.... BWAHAHAHAHAHA!" Without warning, he shot back up to his feet, as cool and collected as he had been before. "Sorry," he remarked as if nothing had happened.

Kate stared at him for a long moment before looking at the group. "Okay, now do you all *really* want to spend more years with this man around?"

"He's an acquired taste," Amy remarked. "So, let's get this show on the road!"

Kate sighed. *Americans.* She nodded and turned to lead the way toward the chamber where the Grail was kept.

*****

"That's it?" Willow said, staring at the Chalice. "That's the Holy Grail?"

"I know, I know," Kate said. "Everyone expects it to be solid gold, filled with jewels, big and loud." She picked up the simple cup and resisted the urge to turn it in her hands. "Everyone keeps forgetting it was the cup of a carpenter." The group was standing in a slightly smaller chamber that looked like the entrance to an atrium. The focus of the chamber was a large bowl-shaped pool that seemed to glow slightly, if not from light than from something else. Kate carefully walked up to the pool and gingerly dipped the cup into it. She brought it out, careful to make sure the liquid didn't spill at all. "So," she intoned, looking over the group. "Who's first?"

A very long silence went up and Robin rolled his eyes and turned to Steve. "Told you," he said.

"I hate it when you're right," the Wanderer muttered.

"I'm still not sure about this," Joyce Summers admitted as she stared at the cup in Kate's hands.

"Mom, I know this is a big deal," Buffy said. "But you did agree."

"I agreed to see it, Buffy," Joyce said. "Now that I have..." She shook her head. "I just don't know if...well, if I'm worthy."

"Joyce, this is something passed along to all Grail members and their loved ones," Steve said. "A sip from the Grail will extend your lifespan. It won't make you Immortal but you can count on living a little longer."

"But am I worthy?" Joyce pressed.

"If you weren't, I wouldn't be offering it," Steve pointed out. "And it wouldn't work on you. I know this is a big step, Joyce but you said you were interested."

"Come on, Mrs. S," Faith stepped in. "Being able to kick around for a few more years, who wouldn't want that?"

Joyce sighed again as she shook her head. She bit her lip as she stared at the Grail, then finally nodded. "All right," she said. "All right. Someone has to go first..." She took a deep breath and held out her hands. Kate reverently placed the cup into them as Joyce slowly brought it to her mouth. The woman took a deep breath, let it out, then closed her eyes and brought the cup to her lips.

She wasn't sure what she had been expecting. Maybe bitter or sweet or maybe a wild glow filling her up. She was rather surprised that nothing unusual had happened. She frowned and took another sip. Still nothing. She lowered the Grail and looked at Kate. "Isn't something...I don't know...supposed to happen?"

Steve shrugged. "Sometimes it takes a few minutes for the effects to take. Give it a little time."

"I've gotta see this," Faith muttered. "I just knew Mrs. S could be a hottie given the right opportunity----"

"Faith!" Buffy yelled. "I do not want the word 'hottie' to be mentioned within a dozen paragraphs of my mother!"

"I do agree with Buffy on this," Kendra said. "That is not the respectful way to talk about Mrs. Summers."

"God, Kendra, maybe you should try the Grail, might cure the stick up your-----"

"Faith!"

"I knew the silence was too good to last," Giles sighed as he rubbed his temples.

As the three argued, Joyce blinked and rubbed at her head as a sudden ache came over it. She briefly wondered if this was part of the Grail's magic but as the pain increased, that thought did with it. "Buffy?" she gasped out as the pain suddenly became overbearing.

The pain in her mother's voice cut through Buffy as she spun around to look at her. "Mom?" she asked. She watched as Joyce held her head, her face in obvious pain. She opened her mouth as if to speak but instead collapsed like a puppet with her strings cut. "MOM!" Buffy screamed as she instantly went to her mother's side. Steve was instantly by her, feeling at Joyce's throat. The rest of the group were frozen at the sudden shock of the moment, staring down at Joyce.

"Oh, God, Mom, Mom, Mom, wake up, please, Mom, wake up," Buffy said, shaking her mother's body. She looked up at Steve, who was rising to his feet. "Steve, what..."

"I don't know," Steve admitted as he looked up at Kate. "What could have happened?"

"Damn," Kate muttered as she took to Joyce's side. "This could be a problem?"

"What? What problem?" Buffy demanded.

Kate sighed. "The Grail works as a major healing agent, you knew that already. Now, it's rare but occasionally, if it's used on someone with an already existing major medical condition, there could be some sort of conflict."

"What kind of condition?" Giles asked with obvious concern.

Kate sighed as she pulled out a cell phone. "I don't know," she admitted. "But we're taking care of this now." She quickly dialed in a number, then waited. "This is Kate," she intoned. "I've got a medical emergency in the Grail Well, I need a team down here ASAP."

Steve looked over at Buffy and felt pain at the tears in his lover's eyes as she looked at her unconscious mother. He reached out to squeeze Buffy's shoulder. "It'll be okay," he softly said. "The Grail has the best doctors around, they can do what's needed."

Buffy gave no answer or indication that she had heard Steven. A bustling sound was heard and a group of people in doctor's gowns entered the chamber, two pushing along a stretcher. The woman in the lead felt at Joyce's neck and looked up at the others. "Pulse is still steady, move her onto the gurney, then down to med-wing." She firmly pulled Buffy's hand off of her mother's arm as the medics did as they were told. They started to push Joyce away, Buffy immediately following them, the rest of the group right behind her.

Robin paused and looked back at Kate. "You might as well put that away," he said, nodding at the Grail. "Trust me, they're going to have other things on their mind for a while." He turned to follow the group out, leaving Kate to realize just how important Joyce was to all of them.

*****

The mood outside the main medical wing of the Grail headquarters was glum to say the least. Jenny was pacing back and forth, trying to keep her obvious tension under wraps. Randi sat on a nearby bench, tapping her fingers together and trying to keep from joining Jenny. Willow was quiet, leaning on Oz for comfort, like Cordelia was with Xander. Kendra and Shaw matched dark moods although Shaw's seemed a bit more disconnected than the others. Amy leaned against a wall, rubbing at her arms as she wiped at her eyes. Even Robin was serious as he looked over toward the door leading to the inside room.

Buffy was slightly slumped on the wall next to the room, staring blankly at it, her face lined with worry. Steve was next to her, rubbing her shoulders as tried to let the Slayer know he was there for her. Buffy didn't seem to notice him or Faith as the Slayer stepped up to lean on the wall by the opposite side of the door. For once, Faith's manner carried no cockiness, no humor or attitude. Instead, she gave her fellow Slayer a look of true sympathy. "You okay, B?" she asked.

Buffy didn't answer, simply staring at the door as if that would make the news arrive any sooner. "Hey, B, the docs here are supposed to be the best," Faith said. "They'll fix whatever's wrong with her, all right?"

Buffy remained silent and Faith bit her lip. "Your mom's tough, B. She's shown that. She'll be okay. She has to be." Faith realized she was trying to convince herself as much as Buffy and that she wasn't quite getting through to the woman right now. She fell silent, leaning back on the wall and hoping to hell she wasn't going to lose yet another mother figure so soon.

The door opened and Buffy all but accosted the middle-aged man who stepped out. "How is she?" she demanded. "Is she okay? Give me the news, now!"

Steve put his hands on Buffy's shoulders and pulled her back a bit, stepping forward to talk to the doctor. "Look, Doctor-----"

"McCoy." He held up a hand. "Don't bother, I've heard them all." He focused on Buffy. "Your mother is all right, she's awake and fully alert." Buffy sagged with relief but tensed slightly as the doctor went on. "Our preliminary tests didn't have any major problems but her collapse from the Grail indicates that something is affecting her. I'm recommending-----"

"Whatever," Buffy broke in. "Whatever it takes to find out what's happening, do it."

McCoy paused, realizing he was dealing with a young woman who, while no doubt a great warrior against evil, didn't realize the full scale of medicine. "As I was saying, I'm recommending getting her a full CAT scan and MRI, to check out all possibilities. However, we don't have that sort of equipment here on hand. I have already called a clinic that specializes in it however, top of the line, state of the art, they'll find anything that's worth finding."

"Where?" Steve asked.

"Crab Apple Cove, Maine," McCoy answered. "I know, it's a bit of a flight but I've already called and they're getting the equipment ready. They should be more than ready to check her out the minute you get there."

"You called ahead?" Robin asked. "I mean, they're getting it ready now?"

McCoy nodded. "Yes. The head doctors there are...good. Slightly irregular but still good."

Robin slowly nodded as he rubbed his chin. "Crab Apple Cove, you said?"

"Yeah," McCoy answered, staring at Robin quizzically. "Why is that important?"

"Oh, just gives me a place to focus on and narrow the field," the faery replied. He drew himself up, as if trying to gather strength. Jenny's head shot up as she realized what was going to happen. "Um, Robin, maybe we should----"

Before she could finish, Robin snapped his fingers and a bright flash enveloped the hallway. When McCoy blinked his eyes clear, he could see the hall empty. He turned into the room and stared at the blank spot where the bed containing Joyce had been. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples. "God, why didn't I go into research?" he muttered. "No, had to be a doctor with my name, thanks a lot, Dad..."

*****

Grail Clinic
Crab Apple Cove, ME
0614 Hours EST

A loud flash echoed through the hallway of the small clinic and the Scoobies stared at the sudden teleport. "Goddess, could you give us some warning first?!" Cordelia yelled. Robin shrugged as if it was no consequence. "The faster the better and it fits under the banner of helping you guys."

Steve shook his head. "Robin, we have to talk a bit more about----" "Steve, forget it," Buffy said. "He's right, the faster we find out what's wrong with Mom, the better. Robin, thank you, now where's Mom so we can----"

"Excuse me." The group turned to face a man in a dark gown, his arms folded before him and glaring at the group. His hair was a sandy gray and he had a tall and thin build, his face relatively handsome with a sharp nose. "Who are you people, where did you come from and who is the woman who popped up in a hospital bed in the middle of the pre-op wing?"

Everyone turned to look at Robin, who shrugged. "So I'm not perfect, sue me."

Steve rolled his eyes and made a note to yell at Robin about this later as he turned to the doctor. "Look, Doctor..."

"Pierce," the man finished. "I'm somehow guessing you're the Sunnydale group and the woman in the bed is the one we're supposed to look at?"

"She's my Mom," Buffy told him as she stepped forward. "I want her checked out head to toe, top to bottom, I want to know if anything and I mean anything is wrong and I want it fixed."

Pierce raised an eyebrow. "God, and I thought Potter could be demanding," he muttered under his breath.

*****

"I want to hit something," Buffy muttered under her breath. "I wish it wasn't daylight because a good staking will really make me feel better."

"I'm glad you've found ways to cope, honey," Joyce managed to say with a smile, despite her rather awkward position. She was lying on a flat table, wearing a simple gown, trying to keep herself calm. She watched as the doctors attached a set of sensors to her wrists and made sure the table was set right.

"Okay, Mrs. Summers," Pierce said as he stepped into Joyce's view. "This is your basic CAT scan, it won't take too long and you'll be fine. Just take a deep breath, try not to move and it'll be over quick."

"Sure thing," Joyce said, managing a smile. She looked over at where Buffy was standing with Steve, her daughter looking at her with obvious concern. "It'll be okay," Joyce whispered. She lay back and closed her eyes as she felt the table slide itself into the scanner. She kept her eyes closed against the blue light in the small circular holding, trying to convince herself of the exact same words.

*****

An hour later, the room was empty, save for two figures. One was Pierce, the other another doctor, a woman about Pierce's age, her golden hair starting to show a little gray to it but still a rather attractive woman. The two were sitting by a computer console, going over the results. "Run it again," Pierce said.

The woman sighed. "Hawkeye, we've run it six times already. It's for real."

Pierce sighed. "Yeah, yeah, I know. But I always hope..."

"I know you do," the woman told him, giving him a loving squeeze of the hand. "You want to tell them?"

"No, but then when does that matter?" Pierce sighed as he stood up. He glanced over at the woman and shook his head. "This won't be easy on them."

"You can do it, Pierce. I know you can."

"Thanks, Hot Lips," Pierce smiled as he walked out, leaving Margaret Houlihan to sit back in her chair with a tired sigh, starting to actually feel her real age.

*****

"Okay, note to all," Cordelia announced. "Next time I get shot, I'm staying here." The room Joyce found herself in was practically a suite, with a large bathroom set to one side and the plush bed Joyce was lying on was a lot more comfortable than the usual hospital bed. The entire group was able to fit in well inside the room, all trying to put on a show of good cheer.

"I have to agree with you there," Joyce said as she sipped at the cup of soda that had been brought to her. "Have you seen the menu? They give you a menu! Full room service, what kind of a hospital is this?"

"It's the Order," Steve said. "They do their best for those under their protection."

"The benefits of belonging to an international secret centuries old group of crusaders," Jenny observed. "It's pretty cool."

"I still can't believe I know you guys," Faith muttered.

The only one not seeming to take this calmly was, not surprisingly, Buffy who tapped a foot impatiently on the floor as she glanced at her watch. "God, what is taking them so long?" she hissed.

"You should really settle down, Buffy," Robin said. The faery was lounging in a chair, casually tossing a yo-yo around in one hand. No one wanted to know where he had gotten it or how he was making it do tricks Tom Smothers would have envied. "These guys know what they're doing."

Buffy turned and fixed him with an ugly gaze. "How come you didn't see this?" she demanded.

Robin returned her gaze evenly. "I don't make it a habit to screen people like that," he said in an easy tone that still contained a serious side. "I don't read their thoughts without their permission and I don't just check them out any time I feel like it. I don't know what's wrong with your mother, Buffy, but for better or worse, I am not going to be doing something like that. Even if it means saving us some trouble, it is an invasion of privacy and that is not something I intend to do with people I call friends."

Buffy looked at him for a long moment before lowering her head in slight shame. "Sorry," she whispered. She glanced up as the door opened and Pierce entered. He glanced at Joyce, then at Buffy and both women could tell this was not going to be good. "Mrs. Summers, I just finished analyzing the results and I think we need to talk."

Joyce took a breath as she sat up. "All right. Go ahead."

Pierce glanced around the room. "Um, I would prefer if be just family."

Joyce glanced around at the group, then fixed Pierce with a stare. "Go ahead."

Pierce swallowed and looked over the paper in his hands. "I'm not going to waste time with technical setup and stuff, Mrs. Summers, so here goes." He looked back up at her with a serious gaze. "There is a small tumor in your brain."

"Oh, Artemis," Willow whispered, putting a hand to her mouth. The rest of the group acted with the same shock, several of the couples automatically clutching hands. "Now, it is small," Pierce quickly went on. "We were lucky enough to catch it here. However, it is in a very, very delicate spot. Surgery is an option but to perfectly blunt, the chances are not what I would call promising."

"But the Grail----" Buffy broke in.

"Miss, I know all about the Grail and what it can do," Pierce said. "And the Grail is working on the tumor, that's no problem. If the tumor was in her chest or abdomen, it wouldn't be a problem at all. But the brain is the trickiest organ in the human body. The water from the Grail is having an effect but not enough. It may need to be speeded along."

Buffy immediately turned toward the witches. "Jenny, Amy, Will, get every spell you can and-----"

"That may not be successful, Buffy," Jenny interrupted. "We have power but the Holy Grail is on a level we can't match and it's having problems working right. I don't know how much more aid any healing spells we have can be."

"Also," Shaw added. "Their magics come from a different faith than the Grail, as do mine. Mixing magical forms can be very dangerous, Buffy. We could end up doing more harm than good."

"She's right," Pierce confirmed. "We need something that can work with the Grail and we need to aid the healing processes."

"How?" Steve asked.

"Water from the Fountain of Youth."

Faith threw up her hands. "The Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth, the Loch Ness Monster, what the hell else do you guys have, the Blarney Stone?"

"Nah, that's needed to hold Great Britain together," Robin replied.

Faith stared at him, then turned to Amy. "Is he serious?"

"I can never tell," Amy replied.

Buffy leaned toward Pierce. "Are you telling me the Fountain of Youth exists?"

"Oh, yeah," Pierce said. "The Order has been using the water from it for years. It was tricky since it had a guardian to keep out those with selfish intent but it's there. And I believe transfusions with the water from the Fountain can speed up the healing process and get that tumor taken care of."

"Well, what the hell are you waiting for?!" Buffy shrieked. "Get it already!"

"Hey, I would if I could," Pierce barked back. "Unfortunately, we're a little low on our personal supply of it at the moment. It's going to take a bit to take that tumor out and it's not like sending someone out for a beer run! You know anyone who knows where the Fountain of Youth is, get there and get back faster than you can imagine?"

There was a long pause before Pierce realized they were all looking over his shoulder. Turning, he saw Robin looking up, the yo-yo still flipping in his hand.

"You want it bottled or on ice?"

*****

The Florida Everglades
0802 EST

The flash of light rang for several yards as Robin appeared in the middle of the swamp. He immediately hissed as he leaped out of the puddle of mud he had appeared in. "Great, these were new shoes too," he muttered. He sighed and wiped at his forehead. *Gods, I didn't realize just how bad humidity could get before I became human.* Even in the morning of early January, a warmth spread throughout the swamplands that was effecting the faery, particularly in his outfit.

He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. He knew he had to be as clear as possible before he reached the Fountain. He knew better than anyone just what sort of guardian the Fountain had, what kind of being made sure those impure of heart did not enter. *Just keep it easy, Robin. Go in, get what you need, go back and hope it works. For Joyce's sake.*

It was the silence that alerted him. The way the buzzing of the insects faded out, for just a second, as if the mosquitoes felt something odd. That and the feeling of incoming danger that had helped Robin out of more than one tight jam gave him the instinct to leap away just in time. The blast of a red ball of energy singed his side, causing him to yelp in pain as he landed on the ground. He rolled around, not caring about the mud on his outfit, simply leaping to his feet to face the man before him. "You?!"

Standing before him was a short and thin man dressed totally in black leather with a spiky black haircut. His face was thin and sharp with a smile that indicated more than a little madness to it. "Hey, Goodfellow," he smirked. "Still a way's off from Disney World."

"Strife, what in the Gods' name are you doing here?!" Robin demanded as he moved into a defensive posture.

"Ah, just making sure you don't get that water," the godling replied. He almost casually threw out a hand and set another fireball raging at Robin, the faery barely dodging it.

Robin shook his head and glared at Strife. "Why?"

"Well, I know Ares is still held back from striking at you guys," Strife said. "So I figure that if I could do something to really hurt them, I'd get in good with him."

Robin stared at him in disbelief. "And you think preventing me from getting what I need to help Joyce is going to make you Ares' new bright-eyed boy?" He rolled his eyes. "I'd ask if you were either insane or an idiot, but both questions would be redundant with you."

"Think what you will," Strife shrugged. "But now, you're giving me two for one. Wasting you will definitely hurt those guys, especially that little blonde witch bitch of yours."

Robin's eyes narrowed and he felt a surge of anger rush through him. "Right button," he hissed, holding up a fist. "First time."

He threw out his fist and unleashed a bolt of energy of his own. It smacked Strife right in the chest, sending him flying back several feet with a yell. "Leave now and it won't be a problem," Robin told him. "Push this and I push back and you don't want that, buddy boy."

Strife snarled as he leapt to his feet and threw out both hands, energy ripping out at them. Robin threw up a quick shield but it still wasn't enough to block the full impact. He fell back and Strife pressed the advantage, throwing out three balls of energy at the faery. Robin managed to block two but the third smashed through his shield and into his chest. He let out a cry as he flew back, smacking into the water and sinking under the surface.

Strife snorted. "I knew it. After all the talk and the hype, you just came off as over inflated." He let out a laugh. "Ah, what do I expect from a lousy piece of drider shit?"

A blast erupted from the water and Strife yelped as he covered his head. He looked up and stared at the sight before him. Robin was floating over the water, now in his true faery body, his hands and eyes crackling with energy as the loophole about defending himself allowed him to once again access his full powers. "It's like I always say," he muttered. "It doesn't matter how big they are, how strong they are or how tough they are. In the end, it always comes down to name calling."

He threw out his hands, palms up and outward, green energy ripping out of them and heading right toward Strife. The godling was too startled by the sudden appearance of the true Goodfellow to defend himself as the energy smacked him in the chest and sent him down to the ground. Robin glided over the water as he fired another energy blast, then another, and another, all smacking into Strife's chest.

Snarling, the godling struck out with a blast of his own. Robin ducked and fired back, Strife dodging the ball even as he shot off one of his own. For several moments, the ozone was thick as the two Eternals shot at one another, each taking a blast now and again but neither one giving up. Robin, however, seemed to have the edge as he hit Strife with a fastball of a shot that sent him down to the ground.

"You'll pay for that, Goodfellow!" he shrieked. "I'm gonna flay you to your bones, then I'm going to that hospital and making sure that Summers bitch dies! They think the tumor's bad now? Wait till I grow it 'til her head explodes right on her daughter!"

Robin's glowing eyes narrowed. "Oh, that is it," he intoned and he started to glow. He seemed to be building up in power, rising higher over the water as he did. His hands were in fists extended outward, balls of energy forming around them. Strife stared at the figure above him and the obvious anger inside and for the briefest of moments, felt a twinge of fear.

Which was Robin was hoping for.

He knew in a drawn-out fight he couldn't match Strife. Plus, he knew he'd weaken before the godling did. But Robin knew what was in this swamp, knew what could draw it out and now he had it.

A trail of bubbles formed in the water behind Strife. A small rumbling went out with it as the ground near the water seemed to congeal and form together. A form began to rise out of the water, its appearance the same green and brown of the ground of the swamps. As the water flowed off of it, it became clear that its body truly was made of the ground of the swamp, moss and weeds mixing with lily and tree bark, making it appear as if it was more plant than anything remotely animal. Its face, if it could be called that, was made of two red-black orbs that appeared to be eyes and a long snout where the nose would be but there was no mouth. It stood over seven feet tall on two legs and had two arms with hands containing long fingernails. It wasn't human but clearly more than simple plant life.

It felt the fear that Strife had given out. The fear often given out by those whose motivations for coming to the swamp were mired in greed and selfishness. It was a fear that caused the creature pain, a pain that it had to alleviate before returning to its rest. It marched forward, moving toward Strife with sluggish steps, the godling unknowingly backing towards it.

Strife sensed something behind him and spun around. He saw the creature only inches away, saw the horrific face and large presence and the fear he felt returned with a gasp. The fear roared out at the creature and it struck out with a speed far greater than its size. Its hand wrapped around Strife's arm as he touched the godling, touched a being that knew fear.

And whatever knows fear shall burn at the Man-Thing's touch.

Strife howled in pain as his hand burned as if acid had been poured on it. The howling continued as the burning grew along his arm, reaching toward his body. Unable to break away from the Man-Thing's grip, seeing the burning reaching his torso, Strife decided it was time to take the better part of valor. Summoning his strength, he teleported away in a flash of light, a few flakes of burned skin still clutched in the Man-Thing's hand.

It stopped, staring at the spot where the godling had been, its feeble mind attempting to understand what had happened. But the fear was gone and thus the pain and so the creature had no more reason to stay. It began to sink into the swamp, returning to the essence it had sprung from and in seconds was gone completely.

Robin let out a long breath as he lowered himself back into the water. He let the energy fade out of him, his body shifting back into his human form. *There's a time to fight and there's a time to be sneaky.* He thought as he turned on his heel and began walking toward the hidden passage to the Fountain. *Whichever way it goes...there are few who can do both as well as I can.*

*****

There's a reason the majority of Florida homes don't have basements. It's hard to dig in a land marked with swamps and water running underneath. Even Robin had a tough time keeping his footing as he made his way down the slick stairs, roughly forty feet below the waters of the swamp. It wasn't as dark as one might think as there appeared to be a light of some sort coming from the bottom. Robin finally stepped onto the ground where the stairs ended, his shoes squishing in the mud. He grimaced as he walked down the dank and fetid corridor, which actually smelled much nicer than an underground chamber should have. He followed the hallway, the light growing before him until he finally entered the chamber.

When one mentioned the Fountain of Youth, images came to mind of a massive golden pool, perhaps with a waterfall of some sort, glowing brightly from wherever it was hidden. Well, the water glowed all right, only it came from what was really a nondescript well, seemingly formed out of the cavern itself. There were no symbols, no gold, no real attention of any sort to the outside of the pool. Vines and mud covered the outside just as it would anything else in the cavern. The water, however, was absolutely pristine and Robin felt his heart beat a bit faster in its presence.

*Not as good as the actual pool on Avalon but damn close* the faery thought to himself. *At least whoever set up the slight spatial portal to connect it to here picked a good spot for it.*

He reached under his coat and pulled out the bottle, grateful it hadn't broken in his fight with Strife. He looked into the water and swallowed. While he could often come across as joking and seemingly not taking much seriously, Robin did have a great respect for the power in this pool, power so far beyond his own. It was with almost reverence that he carefully dipped the bottle into the water and allowed it to fill up, at the same time, trying to keep his fingers from touching it. *Magic being meeting major magic source. Not a good combo.*

Finally, the bottle was full enough and Robin drew it back, placing the stop on it and carefully sliding it back under his coat. He brushed at himself and turned to leave. He paused as a glint of gold caught his eye. He turned his head toward the object and smiled. *Oh, why not?* he asked himself. *You can't go to Florida and not bring back a souvenir.*

*****

Grail Clinic
Crab Apple Grove, Maine
0832 Hours EST

Buffy paced up and down the hallway, glancing at the clock once more. "God, what is taking him so long?" she hissed. "He should be back by now!"

"Buffy, calm yourself," Shaw said. She, Faith, Amy and Willow were with Buffy in the hallway, waiting for Robin to return. The others had spread out around the clinic's waiting area, a few going for snacks, Xander and Cordelia catching a quick nap, Steve in the room keeping Joyce company while Buffy waited. The Slayer was still showing some stress, evidenced by the scowl as she spun to face Shaw.

"I'll be calm when I know my mom is okay!" she bit out. "You don't know how much this is hurting me, Shaw. This isn't some demon or something else I can fight, this is my mom and some stupid tumor. God, I want to do...something! Anything!"

"Buffy, I know this is difficult for you-----"

"Hey, you never knew your mom!" Buffy yelled without thinking. "So, no, you don't know and you're lucky for that!"

Shaw's jaw tightened and Buffy felt a wave of shame wash over her as she realized what she had just said. "Shaw...Shaw, I'm------"

Without a word, Shaw turned and marched away, her face showing her obvious struggle to keep her feelings under control. "Shaw..." Buffy tried to call after her but stopped, wiping a hand along her face.

"I'll talk to her," Faith said, quickly walking after the elf. Buffy sighed and brought her head up to see Amy glaring at her. "Don't start, Amy, I feel bad enough," the Slayer sighed.

"You should," Amy barked. She paused to compose herself before continuing.. "Listen, Buffy, I know this is hard on you. Your mom means a lot to me, to all of us. She's helped me a lot with my problems, she's become the sort of mom I'd want." She brushed back at her hair. "You know about my mom. You know how hard it was for me to open up afterward. You guys helped but it wasn't until I talked to your mom about it that I really felt able to live my own life. So I do feel bad about all of this."

She narrowed her eyes. "But upset or not, Buffy, that's no reason to rip off on Shaw like that. Goddess, compared to her, our lives have been a picnic. At least we knew our moms, for better or worse. She never really got that chance. And the people who did raise her like family...well, we don't need to go into that."

Amy took a deep breath. "Buffy, I remember how weirded out you were when you met your doppelganger in December. And I know the question that was on your mind was how that other you could have gotten that way." She raised an eyebrow. "I think you're getting a little hint of it right now. Do you want to go down that path?"

"No," Buffy admitted. She sniffed and wiped at her face. "I'm just scared, Amy. I'm just so scared of losing her..." She closed her eyes as she felt tears come to her face. Amy walked over and gave her a strong embrace, letting Buffy know she wasn't the only one hurting.

*****

"Shaw?" Faith found her in a small hallway by the snack room, staring out a window. As the Slayer came forward, she could see Shaw had her head bent down and the slightest shimmer of tears in her eyes. Shaking her head, Faith walked over to face the half-elf. "Shaw, you know B didn't mean anything by it. She's just freaked about her mom."

"I understand that, Faith," Shaw calmly replied. She brought herself up, trying to maintain her cool exterior. "It was still not a pleasant reminder of my own past."

Faith tried to appear sympathetic. "Shaw, my own life hasn't been a cakewalk either. I lost my real mom and I lost the woman I came to think of as a mom. The last thing I want is to lose another one." She felt a choking come to her throat and swallowed it. "We both know what it's like to lose someone who helped raise us. I don't want that to happen to B. Not to her."

Shaw was quiet for a long moment before looking Faith right in the eye. "Neither do I," she whispered. "I...do not know Joyce as well as I would like but...she has shown me the same courtesy and care as the others and...I would miss her."

"Me too," Faith whispered, a tear coming from her eye. "Me too."

They were both silent for a long moment, lost in their own memories. "Ah, why are we freaking?" Faith suddenly said, trying to sound confident. "From what I get, Robin can do most anything and getting this water shouldn't be too bad for him."

"He is capable," Shaw said. She frowned. "But even he has his limits. He may not be able to save her."

Faith rolled her eyes. "I'm trying to be upbeat here, Shaw. It ain't something I'm used to so I'd appreciate any support."

"I am sorry, Faith," Shaw said. "But in my life, I have learned that there are things that cannot be stopped. I worry that Joyce's condition may be one of them."

Faith reached out to put a hand on the half-elf's shoulder. "Shaw, we fight vamps and demons every night to save lives. You guys have a damn good track record kicking ass and saving the world. If there's one thing Linda drilled into me that I believed in, it's that there's always hope, even when it looks like it's gonna be the end."

Shaw looked at her. "You believe that?"

Faith sadly smiled. "I thought it was over for me when Linda died," she softly said. "Then F and D found me, brought me to B and Steve and Mrs. S put me up." She shrugged. "Come on, Shaw. If we didn't have hope things could get better than what the hell are we fighting for?"

Shaw stared at Faith with new respect. "Faith, that may well be the wisest thing I have heard you say."

"Ah, don't let it get out. It'll ruin my 'tough and sarcastic' image." She smiled and Shaw smiled back, the two feeling a connection growing between them.

*****

Giles sipped at the cup before him, smacking his lips a bit. "A hospital with tea," he intoned. "The Grail really does provide for everything."

"I'll stick with coffee, thanks," Jenny replied as she sat at the same table in the small snack area. She sipped from her Styrofoam cup and sat back in the chair. She regarded her lover carefully before speaking. "You're really worried about Joyce, aren't you?"

Giles placed the cup down as he pondered the question. "I've become aware of the fact that I'm taking a place in Buffy's mind as a sort of foster father," he began. "I never intended for that, of course, but like most everything else regarding Buffy's life, it's evolved beyond my expectations. Joyce has been an anchor to her daughter's life. I'd hate to think how Buffy would be without her."

"I think we saw that ourselves," Jenny observed, remembering the Buffy from the alternate reality.

"Very true," Giles agreed. "I know Buffy has support from the others as well as you and I but losing a parent..." He looked down at the table. "It wasn't an easy time for me. It'll be harder on her."

Jenny nodded in agreement. "That's true. When the clan cast me out...It hurt. It truly did. I know I still had support from my grandfather but still...that my own people would just turn their backs on me..." She shook her head. "But it'll be worse for Buffy, I know that."

"Not just her," Giles said. "The other teenagers look up to Joyce as well. I know Amy has seen her for some support and I do suspect Faith is considering her more of a mother figure than either realizes. As for Steve, he obviously enjoys her favor." Giles managed a smile. "If he didn't, I'm quite sure he and Buffy wouldn't be on such good terms."

Jenny looked down at the table with a slight look of guilt. "I didn't realize how little Joyce and I really knew each other," she admitted. "I don't think we've talked all that much. I knew she was important to Buffy and I should get to know her better but I just never found the right time for it."

Giles took a deep breath as he sat back. "Neither did I. A very old saying, Jenny. Be careful how you give away time. You can never get it back."

"Here's hoping we can change that," Jenny said, lifting up her cup.

"Hear, hear," Giles softly replied as he lifted his tea in return. They drank and like most of the others tried to cope with the seemingly endless waiting.

*****

"I want you to take care of her."

"Joyce----"

"Steve, listen to me." There was a tone in Joyce's voice that even the Wanderer had to listen to. She sat up in bed a bit, looking the man dead in the eye. "I know you have Robin out finding this miracle cure and he'll probably do it. But I want to make something clear while I can."

She licked her lips before speaking. "I love my daughter. I love her and I want to make sure she's taken care of. Now, the Grail does not make me Immortal. I can be killed and let's face it, Steven, in Sunnydale, that is a distinct possibility for many reasons." She sighed. "At least I know the water from the grail keeps me from being turned into a vampire so that's one nightmare out of the way." She shivered. "She's never said it but I know the one thing that's always scared Buffy is the idea of having to stake me."

She looked back at Steve. "But we both know something can happen," she softly said. "And if it does...Buffy is going to need you. She's going to need you to lean on, to get through everything and to make sure it doesn't destroy her." Joyce sat back on the bed, still gazing at Steve. "She loves you and you love her," she said. "You're a good man. You're good for her. I want you to promise me that if anything, anything at all happens to me, that you'll take care of her."

"You know I will," Steve softly said. "Just like you know nothing bad is going to happen to you. Not while we can help it."

Joyce let out a light laugh. "God, Steve. Do you ever give up?"

"Ask me again an hour after I'm beheaded," Steve replied. A flash of light filled the room and Robin appeared, mud on his clothing and a bottle of shimmering water in his hand. "Sorry it took so long," he said, wiping at his jacket. "Ran into a slight delay."

"What in the hell happened to you?" Steve demanded.

Robin rolled his eyes. "I'll brief you later. For now, here's the water." He held out the bottle. "Get that doc, get her on an IV."

"Wait, wait, wait," Steve said, holding up a hand. "I still want to know what happened."

Robin made a show of seeming non-concerned. "Ooooh, not much. Just good old Strife decided to make his ever-annoying presence known and try to kill me."

"Strife?" Joyce asked. "As in the Greek God?"

"Yep," Robin confirmed. "Don't worry, with the help of...a friend, I sent him crying back to Olympus and I don't expect him to get a warm welcome there."

Joyce's eyes widened. "You fought off a Greek God? For the water?"

Robin looked at her and made a small smile. "You're worth fighting for, Joyce. You remind me a lot of my own mother. I think she'd like you."

He swallowed and fumbled under his coat, obviously trying to go back to a more jovial attitude. "Oh, by the way, Steve, picked up something for you. Here." He tossed out a large gold object that Steve automatically caught. The Wanderer looked it over and then gazed at Robin with disbelief. "What is this?"

"A conquistador helmet," Robin said in a "this is very, very obvious" tone.

"Besides the obvious joke about the Fountain, why are you giving me this?"

Robin rolled his eyes. "You're an antiques dealer. Figure it out." He glanced at Steve and started to back away. "I'll let the others know I'm here and we're all set." He glanced down at himself. "And then, I need to find a serious Laundromat." He walked out, kicking out one shoe to flick some mud on it as Steve and Joyce watched him go.

"Just when I feel like it's finally time to strangle that man, he says and does something that makes me proud of him," Steve observed.

"Now you know what it's like to be a parent," Joyce said with a smile.

*****

The pacing around the clinic had quieted the last few hours. Pierce had been quick to get Joyce on an IV unit using the water Robin had brought. The procedure was going on, Pierce telling everyone it shouldn't take too long. That meant the others could only wait.

Buffy sat in the small snack room, relaxing for the first time since Robin had returned. She took a drink from the coffee cup before her and settled back in the chair. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose, feeling the full weight of the last few hours upon her.

"How you holding up, B?" Buffy looked up to see Faith enter the snack room. The other Slayer looked as tired as Buffy did but was still wearing a friendly smile as she sat across from the blonde.

"I'm trying to hold, Faith," Buffy answered. "As hard as it is, I'm trying."

"I know the feeling," Faith answered. She tapped her fingers on the table as she tried to gather her thoughts. "Your mom...she'll be okay."

"She should be," Buffy said. "That's what the doctors said and they know what they're doing."

Faith bit her lip as she tried to come out with what she was thinking. "I was talking to Shaw..."

"I know, I know," Buffy sighed. "I already got the riot act handed to me by Amy and I'm going to talk to her myself later. I don't need you throwing more guilt on me."

"No, no, I wasn't gonna," Faith quickly said. "It's just that talking to Shaw got me thinking about...well, about how lucky you are."

Buffy seemed surprised. "Lucky? How?"

"Your mom," Faith said. "My own mom...well, the less said about her the better. And then Linda..." She sniffed as she rubbed her face. "You know, she was going to adopt me, make me her heir. She wanted to make sure I was taken care of. She...she loved me. And I loved her..." Faith could feel the tears in her eyes but didn't care. "Seeing her die like that, right before my eyes and I couldn't do one damn thing to stop it..." She looked back up at Buffy, her tears visible. "I'm not exactly a church goer, B. But I pray to God you never have to go through anything like that."

Faith wiped at her eyes as she felt her emotions come out. "Joyce has been so great, B. She has. She's taken me in, given me a great place to stay and she's even been strict to me when she needs to be. She's the kind of mom I've always wanted and I just don't want to lose another one..." She placed her face in her hands and softly cried, not caring that she was doing it before Buffy.

Buffy felt tears of her own as she realized for the first time the depth of Faith's feelings for her mother and how much Joyce meant to her. She also felt a flash of guilt, that she had been acting like she was the only one affected by Joyce's condition. Joyce meant just as much to everyone, especially Faith. Seeing Faith's defenses crumble, Buffy moved forward and gave her sister Slayer a hug, the two drawing strength from each other as they felt a further bond between them grow.

*****

February 7th, 1999
0932 Hours EST

Joyce's eyes slowly blinked open as she lifted up her head. She could see the rays of the sun flowing through the window and realized it was morning. *I slept all afternoon and night?* Joyce wondered as she started to sit herself up.

"Hey, Mom." Joyce looked up to see Buffy at her side, the Slayer beaming with a wide smile. Faith and Kendra were there as well and Joyce turned to see Steve and Pierce on the other side of the bed.

"Mrs. Summers," Pierce nodded. "How are you feeling?"

"Good." Joyce paused and considered her present condition. "Wow. I feel great."

"Look it too," Faith observed. "Damn, Mrs. S, I always thought you could be a looker if you glammed it up a bit!"

"Faith!" Buffy yelled.

Joyce frowned. "Faith, what are you talking about?"

With a smile, Steve produced a mirror and handed it to Joyce. She took it, holding it up to look into it and saw her eyes widen. "Oh my God," she whispered, holding a hand to her face. She felt at the smooth skin, the slight wrinkles that had been there before gone, the bags under her eyes lifted. She ran a hand up to her hair and was astounded to see it much brighter, the slight gray that had been there before gone. "I look almost five years younger!"

"That's the reason they call it the Fountain of Youth," Pierce informed her. "We had to give you only slight transfusions of it. It's tricky stuff. Too much and you'd look like you were in your twenties."

"Which, while great for you, would be more than a little too problematic to explain to people," Buffy said.

Joyce suddenly closed her eyes. "Oh, God, everyone's going to think I got plastic surgery!"

"Hey, it is the trend nowadays..."

"FAITH!" Buffy and Joyce yelled.

Pierce smiled as he leaned in to Joyce. "We just finished a quick scan while you were out," he told her. "The tumor's receded, I'm sure by this tomorrow, it'll be gone completely. In fact, if you feel up to it, we can have you out of here by day after tomorrow."

"Glad to hear it," Joyce smiled. She glanced down at herself. "Well, I think I'm going to need some clothes, I only brought the one outfit..."

"We'll get on it," Buffy told her. "Anything else, Mom?"

Joyce bit her lip. "Ah, actually, just a little time to myself, I...have a few things I need to get used to."

"Hey, understood," Buffy said. "Come on, guys, let's get going."

"Good idea," Steve said as they began to walk out. "We do still have the Grail to take care of." The group filed out, Faith pausing as she turned and gave Joyce a wink, then closed the door behind her. Joyce smiled as she stepped out of the bed. *It figures Faith would figure out what I was going to do before Buffy even gave it a thought.* Her hands went to her gown and swiftly undid the knots. Joyce swiftly stepped out of the gown, then her slippers and, after taking a deep breath, turned to face the full-length mirror on one side of the wall.

*Oh, my.* Joyce thought as she saw the absence of fat and age on her now trim naked body. *Who knows? With the way I look now...I might just be able to get a date with a non-psychotic sometime soon.* The thought made her laugh almost as much as the idea that hit her in the next few moments.

*****

The entire group was waiting in the visitor's lounge when Steve, Buffy, Faith, Kendra and Pierce walked in. All looked up expectantly and all visibly relaxed at the wide smile on Buffy's face. "She's fine," she told them, her own relief showing.

"And she's hot," Faith added. "I do believe when she gets back, Joyce is gonna find herself becoming MILF status with the Sunnydale guys!"

"Swiftly followed by them becoming DOA status," Buffy added. She turned toward one person in particular and marched forward and embraced him. "Thank you," she said softly.

"Hey, it was my pleasure," Robin told her as he returned the hug. "I like Joyce as much as you guys do and I'd do anything to make sure she's okay." He grinned as he moved away from Buffy. "Besides, being able to put Strife in his place was more than worth the trouble."

"I'd tend to agree," a deep voice suddenly appeared. There was a flash of light and a leather- clad man with a dark beard and darker eyes appeared in the room. Instantly, everyone was on guard, all with expressions of dislike on their faces.

"Ares," Steve hissed. "Did you pick a bad day to try-----"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, easy," the God of War said, throwing up his hands. "Easy, okay? For once, I'm not here for a fight and I'm not here to cause trouble."

"Then what are you here for?" Shaw hissed, her eyes narrowed with a gaze of pure hate at the God who had put her through hell a few months earlier.

"I just wanted you all to know that Strife was acting on his own," Ares explained. "I didn't know what he was planning, I didn't okay it and I don't condone it."

"You don't?" Jenny asked with obvious surprise. "Why? Don't tell me the God of War cares about the life of one mortal woman."

Ares rolled his eyes. "I'm not even going to dignify that with a comment. No, because the Grail and the Fountain both involve the one being that even *I* bow to. Not out of devotion, of course, but of respect. I don't mess with stuff that involves HIM and neither should Strife. Don't worry, getting burned by the guardian was a lesson for him." Ares made an evil smile. "And he's getting a better one now."

"What are you going to do to him?" Xander asked, even though he didn't really think he wanted to know the answer."

The evil smile grew. "Oh, simple, really. I just told Arty that he was trying to mess with the lady who means so much to some of her Amazons and let her do the rest."

Instinctively, everyone grimaced, then smiled. "And what is she doing?" Jenny asked.

Ares gave her a bemused look. "Trust me. You don't want to know. Of course, compared to what Hera's planning..."

"Hera?" a confused Jenny asked.

"Joyce is a Mom," Ares answered with a shrug. "Hera is a Goddess of the Hearth. Apparently, she's got a soft spot for the woman and she didn't want Strife hurting her either."

"Great, Mom's got her own goddess watching out for her," Buffy muttered. "Well, this just makes my day complete."

"Hey, Hera's mellowed a bit since the old days," Ares said. "Not that Strife will benefit from that..." He briefly looked at Shaw, Amy and Robin, seeing the still-angry looks on their faces. "Well, I can tell I've overstayed my welcome, so I'll be going." He fixed his gaze on Steve. "Don't get me wrong. I still can't stand you or the way you interfere in some of my projects. I'm only sticking in here because Strife tried to go under my authority and I don't want that. Don't think I've become generous to any of you. Keep that in mind." In a flash of light, he was gone.

Pierce slowly rubbed at his head as he took in what he had just seen. "I swear, Klinger was the picture of sanity compared to you people," he muttered.

*****

"Hey, Shaw?" The elven turned to face Buffy. She had been about to enter the ladies' room when the Slayer had caught up to her. Buffy brushed at her hair and took a deep breath, her features laden with guilt and Shaw sighed.

"Buffy," she said before the blonde could even speak. "There is nothing to say. I understand you were upset and I forgive you for your remarks."

"Well, I'm still sorry I said them," Buffy quickly added. "I know how bad it's been for you and I really, really regret having to remind you of it like that."

Shaw made a small smile. "Buffy," she intoned. "I have learned to live with what happened to me. While that pain has nowhere nearly vanished, it is not as overwhelming as it once was. What you said came from your love for your mother and your concern for her. I more than understand that and I forgive you for the remark."

"Thanks," Buffy gratefully said. She bit her lip as she tried to think of something else to say to the elven. "Listen, I'm planning a party for her when we get back to Sunnydale, a whole 'welcome home well' thing. I'd appreciate your input for it."

"I...do not know if I would be that well at planning it," Shaw admitted. "I am not...as close to Joyce as the others."

"Then this'll be a good way to change that," Buffy said. "She likes you a lot, Shaw so you might as well come with the rest of the family."

Shaw had been about to push open the door but stopped to look at Buffy. "Family?" she softly asked. "You consider me...family?"

Buffy shrugged. "Why not? A little dysfunctional, true, but what family isn't?" She laughed. "Hell, Will, Amy and Faith are the closest I've got to having a sister. And Mom just loves being a mother hen again, I can tell."

Shaw shook her head. "I...do not know if I consider myself part of your family, Buffy. I...well, I often do not feel as if I'm the sort of person who would be chosen for it."

Buffy shook her head. "Shaw, first rule of family. You never choose it. It chooses you." She winked at the half-elf. "But I do think that if it came to a choice, Mom probably would bring you in."

Shaw stared at her for a long moment before pushing the door open. "I will be around soon to talk about it," she said as she let the door close. "I...will talk to you all later." She vanished inside and Buffy let her smile return. *You never choose it, Shaw. It chooses you. Of course, a little influence of the process helps a little.*

*****

Grail Clinic
February 9th, 1999

"I will definitely feel better when I get home," Joyce sighed as she brushed back the sheets on the bed. She was now wearing a light pair of slacks and a white blouse that fit well with her improved body. "I need to get back to work, get the shop running again." She took a breath. "God, I can't believe this, I feel so alive, so strong!"

"I felt the same way after I was Called," Buffy told her. She paused and then moved forward to give her mother a strong hug. "I was so worried, Mom," she softly said. "I was afraid I was going to lose you."

"I know, honey," Joyce softly said. "I was scared too, for you and how you'd react if anything happened to me." She broke the hug and smiled at her daughter. "But I know you could handle it with the support of the others."

"Doesn't mean I want to test that anytime soon," Buffy pointed out. "Which is why I'm glad to see you up and around so fast."

"It does feel good to be back on my feet," Joyce said. "And that trip I took a little earlier today was good for me too."

"Speaking of which," Jenny called out from the doorway. "The store just delivered the clothes you bought." The Amazon gypsy entered the room, throwing a wide smile at the group. Her features seemed a little more clear and attractive, thanks to the Grail.

"How's Giles looking?" Joyce asked. "I haven't seem him yet."

"A few less wrinkles, a little less gray," Buffy said. "But still stuffy and tweedy."

"Wasn't so stuffy last night," Jenny muttered.

"Changing subject!" Buffy announced. She nodded at the bags. "So, what'd you get, Mom?"

"Oh, thought I'd go for a new style," Joyce explained as she pulled a dress from the bag. "What do you think?"

Buffy's eyes widened at the plunging neckline of the outfit and the way the sides showed off quite a bit of leg. "Um, that's, um, that's sort of...um, a much for the shop, isn't it?"

"Really?" Joyce frowned. "What about this?" She reached into the bag and pulled out a top and skirt which she held before her body. Buffy's jaw unhinged as she saw the tight top ended just above the belly with the skirt barely covering the hips. "Um, I, uh, Mom, I think that, ah-----."

"Well, these are the more conservative ones," Joyce explained. "You should see the leather ensemble Faith suggested."

"Faith?" Buffy's eyes narrowed as she spun on her heel and rushed out of the room. "FAITH!"

Jenny chuckled as she turned toward Joyce. "I told you she'd freak."

"I know," Joyce smiled. She started to put the clothing back in the bag. "Okay, I think I have enough time to stop at that shop and return all this before we have to go."

Jenny stared in confusion. "Return? Wait, you're not going to-----"

"Wear these?" Joyce laughed. "Jenny, come on. A few years off or not, I still wouldn't wear anything as ridiculous as these outfits! I do run an antique shop, Jenny. You think I'm going to be taken seriously by customers or dealers if I dress like this?"

"But..." Jenny shook her head. "But then why----"

"Because I wanted to give Buffy a little taste of what I felt when she'd come home with some skimpy outfit or four," Joyce answered. "And because I know the idea of me dressing up like a teen would drive her crazy." Joyce smiled and gave Jenny a pat on the cheek. "When you have a teenage daughter, Jenny, you'll appreciate how a little payback makes you feel a whole lot better."

She packed up the bag and marched toward the door whistling a little tune. Jenny watched her go and then let out a long laugh. "Oh, this will be a fun new twist," she remarked as she stood up to follow Joyce. She could see the smile on the elder Summers face at how long it would take before her extended daughters realized that when it came to tricks, a mother could still have the edge.

End

Home