This Time Around
Chapter Four - Old Habits Die Hard

written by Rainne





She felt a little like a zoo exhibit when Willow and Xander arrived at Giles's apartment in response to his summoning phone calls. They stared at her in shock and amazement, and though her first reaction was to apologize for herself and defer to them as she had trained herself to do over the past four years, a strange thing began to happen to her the longer she spent with them. As she remembered what things had been like for them before her death in Glory's portal, she began to compare things in her mind to how life had been for her after she was brought back.

Willow's face still carried a certain eager innocence, and of the faintly egotistical expression she had worn after successfully resurrecting Buffy, there was no sign. She came into the apartment speaking excitedly to Xander of Tara, but her words froze in her mouth and her eyes grew round as saucers when she spied Buffy. Xander, on the other hand, nearly broke Buffy's heart when he turned two huge brown puppy-dog eyes on her. She had to swallow hard to keep from crying when he approached her warily, studying her carefully. "Hey, Buff," he finally said softly. "Look at you. You got all grown up."

She fought the tears that wanted to fall at the easy affection in his voice. How she had missed them! Their friendship hadn't really been healthy since her return from the grave. They had spent so many months tiptoeing around that topic, and then there had been her "relationship" with Spike and its accompanying shame and guilt, followed almost immediately by Tara's death, Willow's deadly grief and the summer of pain. Then, of course, on the heels of that had come the autumn of fear followed by the winter and spring of the First Evil, their destructive last few months in Sunnydale, and then the final apocalypse – both the Hellmouth and the apocalypse which had occurred in her life. When it had all been over, then had come the final blow which had shattered her world. She had missed them all so much.

Giles had warned them when he called that Buffy was in a fragile state, but they were not expecting her to go to pieces at the sight of them. On instinct, Willow moved to hug Buffy. The Slayer did cry then, wrapping her arms around her friend and holding on as tightly as she dared.

"Hey, hey, I want some, too," Xander protested, and both girls extended an arm, allowing him access to their hug.

Buffy looked at Giles over Willow's shoulder and extended a hand to him. She gave him a watery attempt at a smile, and he returned it, taking her hand but declining to join the group embrace, though he was grateful that she had still been able to reach out to him. He wasn't sure what his future self had done to her or why, but he vowed to do his level best to repair the damage and make her whole again. And if, by some twist of the space-time continuum, he should ever meet his future self face-to-face, he swore to soundly kick the bastard's arse.

If Willow or Xander noticed Buffy's almost desperate need to be close to Giles or her tendency to reach out and touch him while speaking to him – almost as if she were trying to reassure herself that he was really there – neither of them mentioned it. They simply behaved as though it were normal behavior for her and moved on. They were sitting around and discussing the possibility that Buffy's mystery Venetian was actually a vengeance demon when there was a knock on the door.

Giles raised an eyebrow at Willow and Xander. "Were either of you expecting someone to meet you here?" he asked them. When they both shook their heads, he stood and went to the door. Buffy's eyes followed him across the room and then widened as he pulled the door open, revealing the visitor on the stoop.

"Hi, Mr. Giles," Riley Finn said. "I was wondering if Buffy was here. We were supposed to get together today but I haven't seen her and she isn't in her dorm room."

Buffy froze in place on the couch. She'd forgotten all about Riley. She hadn't seen or heard from him since he and his oh-so-perfect wife had vanished in their government helicopter going back to South America to chase demons. Then Riley's eyes flicked past Giles and landed on her face as Giles shifted in the doorway. She waited for the old, familiar thump-thud in her heart, but it didn't come, and she was briefly puzzled. Then she forgot to be puzzled when he crossed the room in a few quick strides and knelt in front of her. "Buffy, what happened to you?" he asked softly, concern in his voice and on his face.

Buffy looked up at Giles, who shrugged slightly, as if to say that she should tell him whatever she felt comfortable telling him. Buffy pondered the implications for a moment, knowing well that anything she said would go straight back to Maggie Walsh, and sighed. "I'm not really sure," she finally lied.

"You're not sure?" His expression turned confused and his hands slid up to her upper arms, gripping her slightly just above her elbows. "Buffy, how can you not be sure? I mean, what did you do?"

Alarm bells went off in Buffy's mind as Riley's hands tightened on her arms with his question. She pulled back slightly. "Let go of me. I didn't do anything."

"Buffy, c'mon, it's me. You need to just tell me what happened, and we'll go talk to Professor Walsh and we'll fix it and put you back like you were."

Even without the mention of Professor Walsh, Giles could have told Riley – had he been so inclined – that those were the wrong words to say to this Buffy. She immediately began to struggle away from him, though she was hampered by the fact that she'd backed herself into the corner of the couch. "No! Let me go! Get off me!"

Misunderstanding her reaction, Riley tried to hold onto Buffy to calm her down, his hands tightening on her arms even more. "Buffy, stop it! Relax, Buffy! Stop fighting me!"

Buffy's overstressed mind overlaid a working-class English accent over the words, superimposed another face over Riley's, and her eyes suddenly went wild as she went directly into panic mode. She violently threw Riley off her, sending him flying across the room, then rolled off the couch and ran straight out the open front door past Giles, pelting down the street. The entire exchange took less than four minutes, as Giles, Willow and Xander watched in shock.

"What the hell just happened?" Riley asked Xander, who was helping him up off the floor. "She acted like she was crazy."

Willow, however, was looking at Giles in horror. "She acted like an assault survivor," the redhead contradicted Riley in a soft voice.

"What?" Xander exclaimed.

Giles raised an eyebrow at Willow. "Is that the impression you got?" he asked in a carefully neutral tone.

Willow nodded, looking miserable, as Riley paled slightly. "She… she reacted like a woman who's survived a rape," the witch said, trying to sound clinical. "Like what you said gave her a flashback."

The more Giles considered it, the more plausible it sounded. Especially if she had employed the famous It-Never-Happened method of dealing with her trauma. "Bloody hell," he sighed. "Now where are we going to find her?"

"I'll go look – " Riley began, but Giles cut him off.

"You'll do nothing of the sort. You've caused quite enough trouble for today, thank you. Go home."

It suddenly occurred to the young soldier that, while Mr. Giles tolerated his presence with a certain amount of equanimity for Buffy's sake, the Englishman did not particularly care for Riley. He swallowed. "Yes, sir." And then he was gone, presumably heading back to campus.

The other three decided to split up. Willow would search the end of town back toward campus and the campus itself; Xander would search the center of town and Buffy's favorite patrolling spots; Giles would search the end of town back toward Revello Drive and Buffy's home. They parted on their mission.

It was Giles who found her. He was coming down the sidewalk toward the house at 1630 Revello Drive when Joyce's Jeep passed him heading for her house. She didn't notice him and pulled to a stop at the curb. Giles looked toward the house and saw Buffy, sitting on the front steps, huddled into herself. She didn't even have a key to get into the house.

Joyce climbed out of the Jeep and turned toward the house, then spotted Buffy, whose head was down on her knees. Giles heard her say, "Buffy? Honey, how come you didn't go inside?"

Then Buffy looked up. Joyce gasped at Buffy's changed face and form, and Giles saw the shock and disbelief on Buffy's own face. He suddenly realized that it had somehow never occurred to her that her mother was still alive now.

Joyce was speaking, but Buffy wasn't hearing the words. She only knew the sound of her mother's voice, a sound she had not heard in seven years, and the sight of her mother's beloved face. She stood and took a couple of steps forward in a haze of disbelief, not quite able to grasp the fact that her mother was really there, truly standing before her, alive and healthy – Joyce who, no matter what happened, had never, ever stopped loving Buffy. Then, with a small cry, Buffy threw herself into her mother's arms.

Read the next chapter: You Don't Know Jack