Dinner was over, she'd taken Giles out onto the deck for a little Watcher-Slayer catch-up, and it had pretty much been a half hour of "Good Lord," interspersed with an occasional "Dear God" and a "Hmm" or two.
She stopped talking, and he raised his eyebrows at her.
"Is that everything?"
He took his glasses off, stared at them for a second, then put them back on. "Mind if I summarize?"
She shook her head.
"All right then." Giles put his index finger in the air. "Feel free to jump in and clarify any time here. You, feeling distanced from your friends and your sister, turn to Spike, a for-all-practical-intents-neutered-but-still-soulless demon, for ... ahem, comfort. Despite the fact that he tells you that you've been ... damaged ... by your own resurrection."
He added another finger. "The diamond thieves, who are not, as you had imagined, demons, but merely technologically advanced engineering-school dropouts with a comic book fetish, place a spell on the diamond. Intending to make you their evil ally, they instead manage to imbue Xander's body with the soul of Maximilien Robespierre. The benefit of which remains to be seen, either to them or to anyone else. Am I right so far?"
Buffy nodded tersely.
"Thirdly." Giles' ring finger shot up. "Willow manages to, through the irresponsible use of Dark magic, unleash a powerful demon on Sunnydale. This demon kidnaps one of the diamond thieves and escapes with him to another dimension. Then, having sworn OFF magic," - here Giles' voice began to shake slightly - "Willow joins with Tara in opening a portal and sending you and Spike through it for purposes of reconnaissance and capture. Which you do, somehow, despite all odds to the contrary."
"You gotta love me, Giles," Buffy murmured. "Always beating those odds."
"Yes, well." He looked tired. "In this case, you're fortunate. The research I did on the portal you call the Tollbooth indicates six known cases of successful opening. In the event that someone actually passed through, they did not manage to return."
"You don't have me to thank for it," Buffy said quietly. "I didn't ask Spike to come with me - he did that on his own. And he was prepared to stay, knowing what that would mean for him." She set her jaw. "I think you've got to take back that soulless-demon thing, Giles."
"Buffy -" he started, but she cut him off.
"No. Don't `Buffy' me." Her hands were fisted in her lap. "Don't even look at me that way, Giles. You don't have the right." She faced him down, eyes shimmering with tears she refused to shed. "You sit there and list off everything that's happened since you left," she said fiercely, "like we're some kind of stupid preschoolers. Like this is `Home Alone in Sunnydale', and aren't we cute and brainless and oh-so-lucky that things worked out. But it's not all our fault."
"No one's saying -"
"Just listen, goddammit," she snapped. "Spike was right. I did come back wrong. Sad, and bitter, and empty. And carrying around a big old death wish everywhere I went. It's not his fault that he's the only one who saw it." Her chin quivered. "You were my Watcher. You should have seen it too. But all you could think was that I wasn't strong enough on my own, adult enough. Damn it, I was broken! I was barely getting up in the morning!"
She gritted her teeth. "What do you call moving back to England, Giles? `Tough love'? Well, fuck you, if that's the case, and fuck you for telling me I've screwed this up. Since when did a Slayer live through high school? Since when did anyone, EVER, have to figure out the kind of stuff I've had to?"
She pushed herself to her feet. "They should have sprung Faith," she said, more quietly. "They shouldn't have brought me back. You were right about that. Because by the time I came back, they didn't really need me anymore."
"That's not true."
"Isn't it?" She whirled on him. "Explain, then. Explain the distance, the disconnection, the guilt. Explain to me why the first two months I was back, no one could look me in the eye, not even you. You knew I shouldn't be here." She dashed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "But I am, damn it. I'm here. And he saw that."
"Hole in one, Giles." She looked more fierce, more adult, more beautiful than he'd ever remembered seeing her. "This isn't Angel. No soul to lose. Not Riley. No weaknesses to excuse and pass over. This is the real thing, the Real McCoy. If I'm damaged, I'm damaged. If I'm not quite right, well, so be it. He's a little cracked himself. But I'm standing here and telling you that I know him, Giles, I KNOW him, and that there's a man there under all that black leather and bleach." She took a shuddering breath. "A good man."
"Now. This is how it is." Buffy gripped the wooden railing of the deck with white knuckles. "We still have half a problem left, because Xander needs his soul back. And we'd kind of like to know how Spike got his Get-Out-Of-The-Crypt-Free Card. He'd feel better knowing if it's temporary or permanent, in case he feels the urge to get a suntan tomorrow. If you can help us with that, we'll welcome your help." She shot him a tense, regal stare. "But if all you have to offer is criticism of our methods and suspicion toward my lover, you can just say your goodbyes now and get back in your rental car."
Please, please, let me say this without breaking down, she thought, and dug her fingers harder into the railing. "We've gotten this far on our own. We can do the rest, too."
His head was in his hands. "Oh, Buffy."
Her gaze softened. What was that in his eyes? Regret? Pain?
God, she loved him.
"I needed you," she whispered. "We all did. We still do."
He squared his shoulders, took off his glasses to clean them one more time. "I'm sorry I wasn't here for you," he said, so quietly she had to strain to hear him. "But I'm here now. Tell me what I can do."
Unseen in the shadows, Spike dropped his cigarette and jammed his hands in his pockets, his heart too full for words.
There's a man there, she'd said.
A good man.
He was sort of beginning to believe it himself.
Continued in Chapter Sixteen