This Time Around
Chapter Six - The Healing Process

written by Rainne

"I'm worried about her, Giles. I really am. Have you noticed how she kind of cringes whenever she thinks you're gonna say something, like, bad or whatever?" Xander's expression was earnest and deeply concerned. He was sitting on Giles's coffee table, looking across the flat at the Watcher, who stood in the kitchen setting up the tea things. "What's happened to her, Giles?"

Giles sighed. "Quite a lot, Xander," he said softly. "When Willow gets here, I'll go into it. I'd rather not have to do this twice."

"Are you sure she's not gonna show up while you're doing this?"

"Fairly," he responded. "She's supposed to be spending today with her mother."

Xander nodded. "Good."

Just then, the front door of the flat opened and Willow walked in, pushing it shut behind her. "Hey, Xander. Hey, Giles."

"Hello, Willow. Tea?" Giles greeted her from the kitchen.

"Sure, thanks," she replied, moving around to sit on the sofa, facing Xander.

"Hey, Will," Xander said softly with a slight smile. "How's college girl?"

"Not bad," Willow replied, smiling nervously as Giles brought the tea things. "So what's up? Where's Buffy? We can't have a Scooby meeting without Buffy."

"Actually, we can," Giles contradicted gently. "I'm very concerned about Buffy. Xander has expressed similar concern and so, to a lesser degree, has Joyce. Having her here, this changed… version, if you will, over the last two weeks, has been very educational, both in terms of prophecies and in light of certain personal behaviors." Giles paused, seeking words.

"What the Word-Guy means, Will, is that we're worried about the Buffster. She acts like a kicked puppy most of the time, and we need to figure out how to fix that."

Willow nodded. "I've noticed that, too. She's like a little kid who's afraid of getting yelled at or getting a spanking."

Giles nodded as well. "I have noticed in the past that the, er… spankings… which tend to affect Buffy most deeply tend to be emotional in nature," he commented. "And Buffy does seem to have been… deeply affected."

"But how do we fix it?" Willow asked, delving in her Willowy way straight to the heart of the matter.

"By showing her, in every way we can, that we care about her, and that we have no intention of harming her or of treating her in the shabby way she has been treated in the past," Giles said firmly "I believe that the best cures for her ailments are simply love, patience, kindness and time. Given enough of each, I believe we can help, possibly even heal her."

Willow and Xander both nodded. "We'll do what we can, Giles," Xander promised. "You know that."

"She broke up with Riley," Willow said suddenly.

"What?" Giles and Xander asked in unison.

Willow nodded. "He came by the dorm and he was pressuring her about going to Professor Walsh again," she explained. The men grimaced, knowing what Buffy had told them about the Initiative, Adam and 314.

"What happened, Willow?" Giles asked.

"Well, he was pushing her about it when I came in from class," Willow explained. "He was talking really low, like he thought I wouldn't notice that she was backed up into the headboard of her bed and shaking like a leaf. So I told him to back off of her, and he told me to mind my own business. So I told him that Buffy was my business and maybe he ought to try minding his." Willow beamed with pride.

Xander grinned. "Way to go, Will! What happened then?"

"He grabbed Buffy's hand and started pulling on her to try and make her go with him, and it was like she just snapped or something. She hauled off with the other hand and slugged him."

"Good show!" Giles exclaimed, then blushed slightly at his outburst.

Willow grinned at him. "That's pretty much what I said. Then she told him to get out and not come back."

"When did this happen, Will?" Xander asked.

"This morning, before she left to go see her mom," Willow responded.

"Very good. You see? She's beginning to recover already." Giles nodded firmly. "There's very little doubt in my mind that this will work out just fine. We just need to be patient with her and reassure her that we will not bring her harm. Whatever mistakes we made, or rather, our counterparts made, in her timeline, we shall be on our guard not to repeat them here." He looked into his teacup contemplatively. "She's far too important to be treated in such a manner," he added very softly.

Willow and Xander made eye contact, exchanging raised eyebrows at this final comment. Willow started to say something else, but paused when there was a knock at the door. The three of them turned toward it and Giles was rising when it opened. Buffy's voice floated in. "Giles? Are… are you home?"

"Of course, Buffy," he said, with a swift glance at the other two.

Buffy pushed the door open farther and started to step into the room, then froze at the sight of Willow and Xander sitting there. Her eyes grew wide as she took in the scene, and naked pain crossed her face. "That didn't take long," she said bitterly, backing out of the doorway.

Giles was after her in a moment. "What are you talking about, Buffy? What didn't take long? We didn't intend to exclude you; I had expected you to be with your mother today." That wasn't entirely true, but it was calculated to soothe.

Unfortunately, it failed. "Sure, Giles," she said, her face crumpling. "That's what you said before, too, only I was supposed to be with Dawn then. You guys didn't expect Dawn to ditch me for the Wannaslay Brigade and me to overhear you talking about how much you hated me. That's cool. I'll just go. I don't wanna be in the way."

She turned away from him, starting for the street, but not before he saw the tears begin to fall from her eyes. Something snapped inside him at the sight of those tears and he decided he would be damned if she was leaving without a fight. By God, if he had to, he'd bring her back from the edge kicking and screaming. At least if she was doing that, she wasn't crying. He didn't think he could take much more of watching her cry.

He chased her and caught her at the sidewalk, grabbing her arm and spinning her back around to face him. "No, you bloody well don't, Buffy Summers!" he snapped. "You don't get to make accusations and then run away! I know you've been hurt – I realize it quite well. I can see it in your actions and I can see it in your eyes. But by God, I am not him, not yet and if I have my way, not bloody well ever! He may have been a fool and a pillock, but I have thankfully not arrived in my dotage yet, and therefore I hopefully on a good day am not. If you've an issue with us meeting in your absence, then spit it out and let's air it now. Don't run away from me. Not now."

At first she had cringed away from him, almost as though she were expecting a physical blow, but the more he spoke, the more she looked up at him. When his voice softened on the last two sentences, he saw something flicker in her eyes and he prayed that he'd got through to her. She sniffled, glancing back toward the door, where Willow and Xander stood, looking uncertain. "They… used to do that," she finally whispered, so softly that he had to lean forward a bit to hear her. "And when I'd come around the corner, they'd stop talking. And then all of a sudden they were going to England and I was going to Rome."

He nodded, reaching out for her hands. "Buffy, we are not conspiring against you," he assured her quietly. "It's true that we were discussing you, but we were discussing the fact that we were concerned about and for you."

She let him take her hands, looking up at him, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. "Really?"

He nodded. "Really. We worry about you, Buffy. We care about you, and we don't like to see you in such pain."

She looked down, and he noticed for the first time that she'd colored her hair again. He reached up to touch the golden strands. "You got tired of the brown?"

She shrugged slightly. "I just… it felt… it…" she trailed off, then shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Giles smiled gently, stroking her hair softly. "I like it," he told her warmly. "However you choose to wear your hair, it is always beautiful."

Buffy looked up at him through her eyelashes. "Really?" she asked softly.

He nodded, smiling. "Really. Buffy, you are a beautiful young woman."

She wiped at her eyes. "No, I'm not," she said softly. "I'm too skinny because I never eat, and I have circles under my eyes because I can't sleep."

"It's true, you could use some fattening up," he replied easily, smiling to let her know that it was not a criticism. "But if you'll let me feed you, then we can take care of that." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he blinked, wondering what had possessed him.

Buffy looked up at him then, directly into his eyes. "What would you feed me?" she asked softly.

His hand slid from the top of her head down to cup her cheek. "Pasta," he finally said after a moment's consideration. "I think pasta, in a good red sauce, perhaps with some wine and breadsticks and maybe even a tiramisu afterward."

The ghost of a smile was present on her lips now. "I like tiramisu," she acknowledged.

He hesitated only a moment, feeling himself at the edge of some vast chasm beyond which the territory was completely unmapped. There was a sudden frisson of fear crawling up his back. He should not do this. Absolutely should not. There were a million reasons why this was a bad idea, starting with her emotional fragility, moving on to the fact that he was her Watcher, pausing at their age difference and going on from there. Logic dictated that he back away from this insane course of action now, before it was too late.

He took a deep breath and told logic to go hang. "Would you care to go with me tonight, then, Buffy?" he asked softly.

She bit her lip, and he saw his own thoughts mirrored on her face. She knew as well as he that she was not emotionally prepared for this; that their age gap could cause problems; that their Watcher/Slayer relationship could suffer if anything went wrong. And he knew the exact moment when she, too, told good sense to go take a flying leap. She smiled at him – the first genuine smile he'd seen from her since she arrived at his doorstep two weeks ago in this older form. "I'd love to," she said quietly.

Read the next chapter: The Face Inside Is Right Beneath Your Skin