The door closed behind Joyce with a soft click. Tipping her head back, she leaned against the frame for a moment, as if that was all the support she needed to shore up her life. She felt suddenly drained, bleached of colour by the sterile institutional white corridors.
Maybe that was what prompted her to reach into her purse for her favourite 'Harlot' lipstick and quickly apply a splash of red to her lips. Not that she was thinking that, just on the off chance, she might bump into a certain someone. Not that she'd found herself peering hopefully over her shoulder every time a shadow passed by Buffy's room. Not that she scanned the cafeteria expectantly when she briefly left her daughter's bedside to grab a cup of the tar that passed for coffee in this hospital.
Joyce was very accomplished at denial.
Nevertheless, she was caught off guard when she glanced down the corridor and was confronted with the sight of that someone walking towards her, clad in a crisp white uniform, clipboard in hand.
As the nurse's silent footfalls drew ever closer, Joyce fussed with her hair and tried to appear nonchalant. (All the while chastising herself for being so ridiculous and for being far too old for this sort of thing.)
The nurse gave a small nod of recognition and stopped a couple of feet away so that there was a respectable distance between them. "Hi Mrs Summers," Faith said, her tone the epitome of professional detachment.
"Hello," Joyce said, masking her self-consciousness behind a fixed smile. "We haven't seen you around for a while." The "we" being herself and Buffy - not that Buffy was much aware of anything, according to the supervising psychiatrist Dr Giles. As for Hank, well, he hardly visited anymore. Apparently his business was more important to him than the wellbeing of his only child.
Faith shifted her stance and Joyce couldn't help but notice the hint of black lace bra afforded by the open neck of the uniform. Up close, Joyce could see the creases on the nurse's dress. The skin against the brilliant white material was unblemished and unlined by age. Thick, unruly hair hung past Faith's shoulders. She was so young and immediately Joyce felt quite, quite guilty.
"Yeah, I got transferred. No more graveyard shift for me."
There was an awkward pause during which Joyce couldn't think of any inconsequential smalltalk to make. So she decided to take the bull by the horns. "I... wanted to apologise for not calling."
"Hey, there was no obligation," Faith shrugged. She gave a short, husky laugh. "Besides, I'm a big girl."
"I wanted to. It's just that with everything..." Joyce paused and met Faith's dark gaze. There was warmth there that seemed to go beyond medical compassion. "Buffy's father's filed for divorce and a lot of arrangements have to be made. He's being a little obstructive about, well, everything."
Faith's lip curled. "Asshole." Off Joyce's pained expression, "Sorry."
"That's okay," Joyce said and found that she was blinking back tears. "Could we go somewhere to talk?" The steady traffic of nurses, orderlies and doctors that walked this corridor was making her uneasy. She was frightened that if she started crying now, she might never stop.
The nurse nodded and they moved wordlessly to an unoccupied room down the hall. Joyce immediately went to sit on the edge of the bed and wiped her eyes. Faith sat beside her, placing a hand on her back and rubbing in soothing circles.
"I just don't know what to do," Joyce confided in a clogged voice. "Hank's supported us since Buffy was admitted here. He wants the house, the car. He says he's met someone, that he wants a clean break." She shook her head in dismay. "I never thought it would come to this."
Covering her face with her hands, Joyce shuddered and quickly felt herself enveloped in strong arms. She sunk into the heat of a torso that smelled of clothing detergent and musky perfume. Her hands clung to Faith's slender back. Wavy hair tickled her nostrils and she buried her face in the softness. She wanted to suffocate in it.
They sat like that for what seemed like an age, until Joyce's grief subsided. Finally, gathering her composure, Joyce drew back and Faith's arms fell to her sides. If it was possible, the nurse looked even more beautifully dishevelled.
"I'm sorry," Joyce whispered, trying not to look at the other woman because entertaining the thoughts she was having would be her undoing. "I've made a blubbering fool of myself."
"I have. I'm a silly, tired, middle aged woman."
Faith touched Joyce's wrist, forcing her to meet the nurse's sincere stare. "Listen to me. You're amazing."
"You hardly know me."
"I want to know you. I think you're fucking beautiful and Hank is a dick for not making you believe that."
Joyce was too stunned to be embarrassed at the intensity of the other woman's words, too flattered to stop Faith when she leaned in and kissed her. Eyelids fluttering shut, Joyce allowed herself to be pulled closer. She hadn't felt this connection with someone for a very long time and it couldn't hurt, could it, to enjoy this brief moment of intimacy? And as she was being kissed, it felt like Faith was breathing life and youth into her veins. It was as if she'd been numb and feelings that had become strange and distant over time were now returning to her. Her cheeks flushed, fingers tingled like pin-pricks below the skin -- God, she was aroused and she couldn't remember the last time that had happened just from a kiss.
She was almost disappointed - almost - when Faith's mouth moved to her neck, kissing the length of it until her lips hovered near Joyce's ear. "You're so hot."
Joyce hadn't been spoken to like that since she was at college. She gave a shy laugh. "I must be keeping you from your patients."
Faith gave another one of those throaty laughs that Joyce was beginning to find incredibly alluring. She nodded. "Yeah, I gotta get back." The nurse stood and rather futilely smoothed down her uniform. "If I asked you to call me, would you this time?"
Joyce smiled demurely. "I think so."
"You better. Okay, bye," Faith said with a lopsided smile and slipped out the door.
Alone again, Joyce felt buoyant and decisive. When she got home - her home, damnit - she was going to call her lawyer and instruct him to fight Hank tooth and nail. She'd given that man twenty years of her life, she owed it to herself, to Buffy, to be strong.
And after that, she was going to make a date.