by Jeanne DeVore

Buffy, Giles et. al belong to Joss Whedon and the WB. I'm just playing with them. No copyright infringement intended.

It took more than an hour to clean up the house. Between broken glass, smashed furniture, and corn chips ground into the rug.... Buffy gazed at the destruction. When dead men partied, they partied hearty.

The gang was great, helping 'til the job was done. Funny how when it mattered, all the anger, all the "issues" and hurts got set aside and it was Slayer and Slayerettes again. It had felt...good, in kind of a weird sort of way, to be fighting with her buddies for their lives. Things were still tense between them, especially between her and Xander. It would take some time, she supposed. But things were definitely going better between her and Willow. They worked side by side during the clean-up, not saying a lot, but not really needing too, either. There had already been talking, and there would be more talking later. Oz, Buffy decided, had to be the coolest guy around. Nothing ever bothered him, he just pitched in and did what he could. And Cordy...well, Cordy was Cordy.

Then there was Giles. They hadn't had any chance to talk yet, just the two of them. Buffy was both anticipating and dreading it. Of all the people her leaving had hurt, Giles had to be at the top of the list. Not that he'd ever say anything. He never would. He'd just smile, say welcome back, and carry on like usual. Unless she brought it up. Which she wasn't sure she could.

Eventually, the house was as cleaned up as it was going to be tonight. They'd need to get the rug cleaned, scrub the floors. Giles called some 24-hour board-up place, and between him and her mom, made arrangements to get the windows and doors replaced. Buffy'd watched them taking earlier. They seemed very at ease with each other, like they'd talked a lot while she'd been gone. They probably had. Her watcher friends with her mother. That was a weird one. She wasn't quite sure how she felt about that.

She was heading for the kitchen when she heard soft voices and recognized them as her mom and Giles. She stopped cold. Last time she stood here, she heard her mother say how hard it was to have her back. She was afraid what she'd hear this time. But then she heard her mother's soft laugh and Giles' answering chuckle, and figured that whatever they were talking about, it couldn't be too bad.

"...used them in years," her mother was saying. "But still, you hate to have something happen to them like this."

"Unfortunately," Giles answered, "the undead are no respecters of property. Grim as it may sound, I've learned not to put much store in material things. One never knows when some...demon will take a fancy to it. Or simply decide that it's in the way."

Buffy cleared her throat and came into the kitchen. The adults stopped talking and turned toward her. Pieces of one of the company plates were in her mother's hand.

"I'm sorry about the dishes, Mom," Buffy said softly.

Her mother's smile was sad. But at least there was a smile. And her answering shrug was fatalistic. "At least none of us were hurt," she said, and Buffy thought her ability to sublimate was pretty amazing. It was as if she was willing to totally forget Pat had ever existed.

There was an awkward pause. Everybody remembered all right, just didn't want to talk about it, think about it.

"Everything's all cleaned up out there," Buffy finally said.

"Good." Her mother smiled, tossing the remains of the plate into the trash. She left the kitchen, probably to check on their efforts. Buffy looked up at Giles, but he didn't say anything, that enigmatic half-smile on his face, just raised an arm to usher her out of the kitchen. They so had to talk.

In the living room, Mom was saying good night to the rest of the gang. "Thank you for all your help," she was saying.

"Hey, just another wacky night on the hellmouth," Xander quipped. Cordelia hit him and everybody laughed nervously. Buffy was beginning to wonder if things would ever be okay between them. Not the way it was, she knew that was impossible. But better.

"Yeah, thanks, guys," she added. "For everything." She hoped they would understand.

Willow smiled. If anyone would understand, it would be Willow. "You're welcome. We're just glad you're home."

There was another awkward pause, like no one was really sure if they were glad or not.

But Buffy smiled. "Thanks. I'm glad I am, too."

The tension broke and she hugged Willow good night. Then, after another awkward pause, hugged Xander, too. She was surprised at the intensity of his hug, and how quickly he pulled away, like he hadn't wanted to hug her that hard, but couldn't help it.

She said good night to the others and they left.

Giles was still here. She turned around and the three of them stood in the middle of the wrecked living room, like idiots, wondering what to say, or even if there was anything to say.

Giles cleared his throat. "Well, it's late, I'd best be going myself."

Buffy's mother nodded. "Thanks for everything," she said, then flushed, smiling almost shyly. "Again." Her mother was blushing. At Giles?

Giles chuckled with his own shy smile. "You're very welcome, Joyce. Only the next time you decide to hang some primitive me first?"

"Absolutely," her mother nodded fervently. "Good night."

"Good night." He turned and looked at Buffy, a look so complex in its emotions, so deep in its meaning, she felt like she could study it for the next hundred years and still not totally understand it.

There were things he wanted to say to her, she could feel it. There were things she wanted to say to him, too. They hadn't had any time yet. There hadn't been any time....

She looked back at her mother. "I'll just see Giles out." She saw Giles' glance flicker to her mother and back again.

"Okay, honey," Mom said. Then she smiled. Giles smiled, too, and mixed in with everything else was a touch of relief. Her mother went upstairs, and Buffy opened the front door, or at least what remained of the front door. Now it was mostly plywood.

Giles held it open and let her go first, then followed her onto the porch. They stood for a long while, listening to the stillness of Sunnydale at night. After a major demonic crisis. When it was quiet for a change.

Buffy took a deep breath. "Well, that was uncomfortable."

He turned and looked at her. "You expected everything to be like it was?"

"No, but...but I didn't expect it to be this hard, either."

"It is hard, Buffy. It's been hard on all of us. On your mother, on your friends...."

"I know, but I...."

"I know you feel you did what you had to. And I'm not going to scold you and tell you you acted rashly and selfishly. You've got enough people telling you that already. But you also must understand that everyone you left behind has been having as difficult a time over these past months as you have. It's not going to be easy to pick up the pieces and go on. But at least now we've got the opportunity to try."

Buffy looked at him and he returned her gaze steadily. "You've been talking to her." It wasn't a question.

"There were things she needed to know."

"So does she know them now?"

"Not everything. But enough." He took a deep breath. "This has been very difficult for her, Buffy. It's a hard thing we've asked her to accept. You can't expect her to brush it off as of no consequence, not when it deals with the mortality of her only daughter. She's confused, and angry. You'll need to be as patient with her as she needs to be with you."

Buffy sniffed. Stupid emotions kept swamping her. She was so confused...all the time. "I missed her," she said. "So much."

"She missed you," he said. "And she's grateful to have you home."

"I'm not so sure," she murmured.

"Of course she is."

"Before, I heard her talking to Pat about how much harder it was with me here...."

"Just because something's difficult doesn't mean we don't want it," he answered. "It is harder, that's inevitable. When a loved one is gone, all one can think about is how much one misses them, and how everything will be all right again once they come back. But a reunion brings with it real, sometimes conflicting emotions. Now that one doesn't have to worry about whether the loved one is lying in a ditch somewhere, there's room for other thoughts, the ones which remember the pain of being left behind."

She glanced at him again. He wasn't looking at her this time, staring into some middle ground. He was using 'one', but she couldn't help but wonder how much of what he said could have been 'I'.

"Will it get any easier?" she asked softly.

"It should." He looked her way again. "Once everyone gets used to your being back. But it will take time."

She nodded, looking away. "Yeah, well it's not like I'm doing much of anything right now anyway," she sighed.

"I'll be speaking with Principal Snyder tomorrow," he said, knowing exactly what she meant.

"It won't do any good. He hates me. It's not just that he thinks I'm a bad student or something, but he really, really hates me."

"Yes, perhaps he does. But his personal feelings are no reason to keep you out of school. Legally, I don't believe he can. As a minor, you are entitled to a public education. I intend to fight this Buffy, as far as I have to in order to get you reinstated."

She gazed at him. "You'd do that?"

"Of course."

She was touched by his concern and his determination. "Thanks." She looked back at the street. "I miss school. I never thought I'd hear myself say that, but I do. I miss all the little things, like homeroom and bad cafeteria food, and jerks in the hall. I miss being with my friends. I miss the library." She turned to look at him again. "I really miss the library."

"Depending on how things go, we may try sneaking you on campus after hours occasionally," he said. "I don't want to endanger your possible reinstatement with infractions, but...but I miss having you there." It was the closest he'd come to admitting that he'd missed her. Not that she thought he hadn't, of course, but he was Giles; he just didn't say stuff like that.

She smiled at him. "We should probably start training again, too. I...didn't do much, like hardly anything at all, over the summer." She hoped he wouldn't ask what she did do over the summer. She wasn't ashamed of it, especially, but she didn't want to talk about it, either.

But Giles, being Giles, seemed to know that as well. "Yes, well, we'll give you a few days to settle in, then we'll see."

She nodded. Then it finally clicked in her head why he looked so different. The glasses. He'd gotten new glasses. The suit was new, too, at least she'd never seen it before. She was impressed; it wasn't tweed. And it looked like he'd lost weight. But it was the glasses that really made him look different.

"Oh, hey, I like the new glasses," she said. He ducked his head, smiling. "I like the suit, too, but the glasses make you look...I don't know, a little funkier." He chuckled softly and she thought he might be blushing, just a little. She loved teasing him. She'd missed that. "So what happened to the old ones?"

His smile vanished and he looked away quickly. " they were... damaged."

A lance went through her. A sword which sent her beloved to hell. He had to get new glasses because the old ones must have been wrecked by Angel during torture. She remembered seeing his splinted fingers that morning, right before she left. Willow had been in a wheelchair, Xander's arm was in a cast, and Giles had looked...had looked like he'd been the one who'd gone through hell. He'd suffered tortures for her. And she'd repaid him by running away, by disappearing where no one could find her. She wondered if he searched for her, but knew he had. He was her watcher. It was what he did. Without her to watch....

Her throat closed and her jaw tightened. Her mother missed her. Her friends had missed her. But Giles....

She pinched her eyes shut, fighting against the tears which threatened to overwhelm her. How her going must have hurt him. He was only here because of her. Far away from his home and his friends and maybe family and everything else he cared about, here just for her. And she repaid his devotion by taking off, hiding out. What had he done all summer, while she'd been waitressing and trying to forget? How had he coped? She'd been so wrapped up in her own pain, she hadn't bothered to think about anybody else's. She hadn't thought....

She wanted to tell him how sorry she was, but the words were so inadequate. What good did sorry do? Sorry couldn't change anything. Sorry didn't undo past mistakes.

She put a hand over her face, trying to keep from sobbing, then she felt a hand on her shoulder, gentle, supportive, caring. She turned toward him blindly, reaching out, and he wrapped his arms around her in a protective hug. The dam burst and she wept, first into her hand, then giving up and crying against his vest front. The fabric was soft beneath her cheek and his arms were strong, dependable. He didn't try to stop her crying, he just held on, letting her lean against him, being the support she needed.

She struggled to stop the deluge; she really hated crying, especially crying in almost-public like this. She pulled back, wiping viciously at her eyes. "'m sorry," she whispered.

"Shh-shh," he soothed, stroking a hand over her hair and pressing her head to his chest again. She leaned against him gratefully.

"I thought...I was so.... I didn't know what else to do." She swallowed, fighting her tears. "It all got so messed up.... I needed to get away, sort things out. I thought it would help, help me. I thought it would be better for everybody else, too, if I wasn't here to cause trouble. I thought...I thought it would make a difference." She sniffed, looking up at him. His gaze was compassionate. "But it didn't."

"Running away never does," he said softly, as one who knew. "But sometimes it takes running away to see that." He dug in his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, using it to wipe gently at the tears on her cheeks. "Running away doesn't solve anything. All the same problems you left are still here, still waiting patiently for your return. But perhaps, having given yourself some time and space, you can look at them anew, with a fresh perspective."

She sniffed again, still gazing up at him. "I was so afraid you'd be mad."

He smiled gently. "I probably am. I'm probably furious about your lack of consideration, the anguish you put your mother through, and your friends. How a single phone call would have alleviated most of their fears. But right now I'm too grateful to have you home again, safely. You don't need me scolding you along with everyone else. There's nothing I could say right now that you don't already know."

He was right, of course. She did know. She knew how much she'd hurt them all. Even how much she'd hurt Giles, though he wouldn't ever admit it. Nothing she could say or do would undo what she'd done. But maybe she could, somehow, start to make it up to them. Make it up especially to him.

Her eyes filled with tears again. "I missed you," she whispered, fighting the emotions. "So much...."

"I missed you," he replied, his voice soft and low, his hands stroking from her hair down the sides of her face until they cupped her chin. "Every moment of every day."

She was in his arms once more, held so tightly it almost took her breath away. He bent his head and she could feel his cheek pressing against the top of her head, his soft breath gently stirring her hair. His breathing was ragged, like he was struggling against his own tears. The thought made Buffy cry even harder.

Eventually, she calmed. Eventually he eased his tight embrace. He blinked rapidly to banish the moisture there. He handed her the handkerchief, and she used it to dry her eyes, blow her nose.

He let her go, but kept one hand resting on her shoulder, as if he didn't want to totally let go for fear she'd disappear again. They didn't say anything, just stood side by side, looking out at the street.

"Well," she took a deep breath, "I guess you should probably go."

"Yes," he nodded, withdrawing his hand. "Work tomorrow." He coughed, clearing his throat. "And somehow in all the confusion, I seem to have lost my keys."

"Eghh," Buffy made a face. "Can you get home?"

"Yes, I'll be fine. I...think I know where I left them."

"Okay, well...." This was stupid. It wasn't like she wasn't ever going to see him again. Why couldn't she just let him go? "I'll see you later."

"I'll talk to you tomorrow. Good night." He started down the porch steps, then at the bottom, turned to her. "I'm very glad you're back, Buffy."

She forced herself to breathe around the lump in her throat. "Me, too." She realized as she said it that it was more true than she'd ever imagined.

He smiled, then he turned and headed down the street to his car. She watched as he got in, leaned over for a few moments, and then the car started and he pulled off down the street. She smiled. A man of hidden talents, Giles. She wondered where he learned to hot-wire a car.

Her grin grew wider at the thought of asking him. Yeah, once she was in school again and they were back to training and stuff.... Once things were back to normal. Somehow, with Giles' help, she knew they'd get back to normal. Or as normal as things ever got around here; it was still the Hellmouth, after all.

Still smiling, she went back inside, closing the plywood door behind her.