Summary: Buffy has an epiphany while arguing with Giles over Spike. Will her date with Robin Wood further muddle things between the Slayer and her insecure vampire? Will her words undo the damage already done? Can a bit of honesty change their path?
Setting: S7 Beginning of "First Date" and AU from there

A/N: Some bits of dialogue taken from "First Date", written by Jane Espenson; "Potential", written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner; "Choices", by David Fury; and "The Prom", written by Marti Noxon.

Better:

Buffy knew this was coming. Actually, she was a bit surprised that Giles had let her get a full night's sleep before bringing up the elephant in the room…or basement, as it were.

The timing was pretty good, all things considered. She was getting ready for work and running a bit late as usual. Less time for lectures and questions that she had no answers for-none that she wanted to share at any rate.

She slipped a large gold hoop in her ear, adjusted her red sweater and waited for Giles to say the inevitable.

"You know this is very dangerous."

Yes! There it was! The elephant trumpeted its presence.

Not willing to make it any easier for her Watcher, Buffy chose to play stupid. She was good at that act, having hidden her real intellect successfully for years. She had saved herself from numerous research duties that way. "You hear the horror stories: wear hoops and they'll catch on something and rip your lobes off."

Giles rolled his eyes at her evident denseness. "That's not what I'm talking about."

Buffy sighed and dove right in. "You mean Spike not having the chip? Free range Spike?"

Giles bit his lip and tried to keep it civil. No point in turning this into an argument from the start. "I have to ask…why on Earth did you make that particular decision?"

"I guess it was instinct, like you were talking about when the Bringer nearly took off your head," Buffy countered.

Giles had the grace to look a bit sheepish. "I made that up. I knew the Bringer was there because his shoes squeaked." He pointedly ignored the incredulous look Buffy gave him. Too many years of dealing with Giles and head trauma had made the lie too apparent to even point out.

Giles leaned against her vanity as Buffy continued to prepare for another day of teen angst and boredom. "Buffy, it's crucial that we keep these girls safe! I cannot count the dangers. There's the First, the Bringers, random demons and now…Spike?"

"Don't forget the principal," Buffy hinted.

That managed to sidetrack Giles for a moment. "What? Is he a demon or, worse, another Snyder?"

"Don't really know yet. He was in the school basement holding a shovel and acting evasive. He's also got the whole Rico Suave thing going on. I'm looking into it," Buffy promised.

"Oh, well, that sounds very responsible of you," Giles huffed, not to be swayed from the point of this entire confrontation by a principal-shaped red herring. "Balances out the whole vampire-on-the-loose issue."

"Sarcasm isn't really a pretty look on you." Buffy moved some of her laundry and tried to remind Giles of the facts. "Nothing's changed, Giles. Spike had a chip before when the First had him killing again. Besides, he has his soul now. That's going to stop him from hurting people."

"People with souls hurt people every day."

"I'm really aware of that, believe me. I was here. You weren't," Buffy snapped. "I dealt with the tragic trio. I saw Willow and Xander and-," She bit back the "me" that had nearly spilled out. She swallowed, closed her eyes and decided on a delay tactic. "Look, I'm late for work already. If Wood is a demon, the last thing I want is to miss prime snooping time discussing this with you. The chip is gone. Spike is on the team. End of discussion."

"No," Giles said decisively. "Not the end. We will discuss this later. We will discuss it until you give me a good reason why I shouldn't just go downstairs and end the danger at the point of a stake myself."

Buffy stopped in her tracks, her blood running cold and face paling to near vampiric lightness as her grip on the door jamb nearly warped the wood. "Don't even think about it, Giles. I mean it. Spike had better be all in one piece when I get home and I don't mean in the Hoover." She turned and glared at the man who had been a father to her in all but name. "Okay, you win. We'll talk about it, but later, when I have time. I mean it, Giles: leave Spike alone."

Buffy's heart was still racing. She had nearly been caught with her hand in Principal Wood's cookie jar…or weapon cabinet, as it were. To Buffy, a good collection of weapons was like cookies! Yum, cookies! Buffy's tummy rumbled. She was really beginning to regret missing her breakfast when it slowly dawned on her that a seemingly bemused Robin Wood was talking about a another sort of meal altogether.

"Well, then, I'd, um…I'd like to take you out to dinner, if that's all right with you. I mean, you don't have to. I'm certainly not saying come to dinner if you enjoy having a job." The principal laughed lightly, then sobered as he remembered his in-service training on sexual harassment. "You know, I may have to make up a document saying I didn't just say that and have you sign it."

Buffy smiled in relief. The great spy caper seemed to have gone unnoticed by the mysterious man who now signed her paychecks. "Sure, I'd be happy to have dinner with you."

It was the truth too. The idea of a peaceful meal consisting of something more than mac 'n cheese or pizza had an appeal of its own and the company couldn't help but be interesting at the very least.

Wood was a young, hot, intelligent man with earrings and attitude. If Buffy weren't so focused on her battle against the First Evil, she might even be tempted to see where a relationship might lead. She thought about the man and this date as she waited for the next student with the crisis of the day.

She leaned back in her chair and let her mind wander. Buffy had a feeling that accepting a date from her drool-worthy, upstanding, heartbeat-positive boss would cause a near celebration among her friends when they found out. She wasn't ignorant of the whispered conversations and concerned looks that passed between Willow and Xander, especially after she brought Spike into the house with them all.

Xander had been hinting for months that Buffy needed to "get out there and back on the dating horse." Even with all the recent evil brewing, he would still nudge her and motion when a nice-looking guy (always in full sunshine, she had noticed) came into view. Buffy wanted to tell Xan to just date one of them himself, the way he noticed and talked up their various charms.

No way was she going to let either of her friends pick out another date for her. Willow had been the one to really push Riley at her back in that first year in college. Look how well that turned out! As for the boy Xander dragged to her birthday party last year…well, the less said about Ronnie or Richie or Robbie-whatever his name was-the better. They all just wanted her to have a nice normal life.

Normal! Buffy thought back to that horrible time when the 'Council of Old Men Who Think They're All That', may they rest in peace, had Giles drug the Slayer right out of her. She had hated that! 'Never felt so helpless, so useless.' Normal had meant just that-nothing special, nothing powerful, nothing.

Her mom always hoped that Buffy could have the sort of life she had wanted for herself. After college, Buffy would have a nice career, meet a nice boy with a good future and settle down with a cute bungalow, two point five kids and a Cocker Spaniel. 'Wonder what that point five kid means?' Buffy mused. 'How do you have half a kid?' Besides, the 'nice boy' would just grow up to be a secretary-chasing, deadbeat father who would bail when it got tough.

Joyce had never fully understood the life Buffy had been chosen to lead. That last year with Glory and a new, shiny, mystical daughter from out of nowhere, however, had brought some sense of it to her. Joyce had begun to see that Buffy would never have that TV sit-com life that was as abnormal in the real world as the one she was living as the Slayer.

Joyce had liked Riley well enough, but she hadn't really seemed to want to spend that much time getting to know him. It was as if she'd known deep down that the clean cut soldier wasn't the long haul guy for her eldest.

Not that Riley had exactly been 'Joe Normal' either. He had been a chemically enhanced, chip-equipped, super-secret demon hunter working for a real-life Dr. Frankenstein and the Josef Mengele league. Even now he was out there somewhere playing with high tech weapons and chasing down ooglie googlies. Looking all James Bond and married to Mary Sue Bond, who'd probably start popping out perfect little baby Bonds any time now.

No, Riley hadn't been the normal guy either and yet he was as close as she had come to finding one that could at least understand her world and survive in it. Owen had proved how dangerous it was to drag a regular guy into her nightly ventures and Xander had come close to disaster more times than Buffy wanted to remember over the years. Even Giles, with all his training, had a bad habit of getting knocked unconscious on a regular basis.

Now she was going to dinner with Robin Wood. She wondered if he was going to turn out to be a demon or worse. His hidden case of nifty knives hinted that he wasn't your run-of-the-mill educator. She sighed. "Not like I'm really interested anyway. Wrong time, wrong guy."

"Um…," a strange voice interrupted her thinking and caused her to nearly tip the chair over as she straightened up. "I'm pretty sure this IS my time. Gee, I thought you counselors were supposed to at least pretend you're interested," The pimply faced Keanu Reeves wannabe pouted.

After suffering through more angst than the average daily episode of General Hospital coming from the lips of the third troubled teen to grace her office, Buffy was more than ready for a break.

She spared a glance at the Principal's office and saw Robin bent over paperwork. "Gotta be a demon. He even does his own filing!"

It seemed silly to be thinking of her love life now, given the whole First Evil situation and the house nearly bursting at the seams with enough teen girls to drive Jerry Falwell into the pro-choice camp.

Buffy poured a mug of coffee and added enough sugar to keep up the lease on her dentist's timeshare. "Leave it to me to finally be ready to move on from Angel and then have a major apocalypse come along to distract me." She wondered idly if the Powers got their jollies in thwarting her love life and if they got extra points for creative ways of derailing it.

She hadn't been with anyone but Spike since Riley left her. She had wondered from time to time if there could have been any way to make it work with the studly soldier, but he just could not accept her as she was without feeling inferior. That way had led to badness, much badness, and vampire skanks. "THAT could have been fun," Buffy shuddered at the thought of the horror averted. "If Riley had been turned, he could have taken us all out before we bought a vowel!" And all because he couldn't deal with the Slayer.

Spike. Now, Spike had accepted all of her: the hurt, scared little girl and the Slayer who just could not stay dead.

In many ways, Spike would be perfect if it weren't for that whole vampire, immortally undead part. She remembered the lecture given by the Snake-wannabe Mayor to Angel about the wrongness of that. "You're immortal; she's not. I married my Edna May in ought-three and I was with her right until the end. Not a pretty picture. Wrinkled and senile and cursing me for my youth. Wasn't our happiest time. I mean, come on, what kind of a life can you offer her? I don't see a lot of Sunday picnics in the offing. I see skulking in the shadows, hiding from the sun. She's a blossoming young girl and you want to keep her from the life she should have until it has passed her by. My God! I think that's a little selfish."

Buffy was glad she blew him to pieces.

Her mother had been in full agreement though, finally even convincing Angel that the best possible thing to do was to let Buffy learn to love again…someone human, normal.

"I've been thinking…about our future. And the more I do, the more I feel like us, you and me being together, is unfair to you. You deserve more. You deserve something outside of demons and darkness. You should be with someone who can take you into the light. Someone who can make love to you," Angel had looked pained knowing it could never be him. He swore that one day she would want what they all said she should have. "Before you know it, you'll want it all, a normal life."

"Yeah, that worked out real well," she snorted and took a sip of her coffee-flavored sugar water. "The things that drove me crazy last year were those wonderful normal things! Hated the Doublemeat job, the bills, the mortgage, the instant mom stuff! The only time I felt alive, felt whole, was in Spike's arms."

She had tried to tell them, beginning with Angel, "I'll never have a normal life." He had agreed that being the Slayer meant anything but the girl next door but added that it meant she was even more in need of a real relationship with a real boy. It didn't stop him from coming to express disapproval the minute she got one though. No, she had finally come to realize that it was merely a great excuse for Angel to move on.

"I was…what…supposed to join a convent?" Buffy felt her ire rise.

Everyone else got to love whoever they wished! Willow had dated first a werewolf and then sweet Tara. Xander had been annoyingly connected to an ex-demon, nearly marrying her. Even Giles had his flings, including one with her own mother! As for her mom…her one big romance was with a robot. "No one ever asked me my opinion about their choices, and when I tried to give one about Ted, everyone said I was jealous 'cause he was dating my mom."

Maybe she and Spike could have made a go of it if she had been in a better place. Too much had gone down though, and she knew that every person in her overcrowded house would be more than ready to voice an opinion if she chose that route again.

"When this is all finished, maybe I should look into convents," Buffy sighed. "Wonder if you have to be Catholic? I am so going to hate learning Latin."

Buffy had seen the look. She didn't acknowledge it, of course, but she saw it. You couldn't help but know Spike's feelings; they played out on his face, in his eyes. That was true even before the soul. He wore his heart on his face for the world to read if they chose.

It had been awkward running into him, especially just outside the bathroom. That was one area that always caused them both to fumble with words and not be able to meet one another's eyes. Add to that her preparing for a date with another man and no words he could ever spout could cover the hurt that blazed on his face. He had looked sucker-punched.

She hadn't had to look backwards to know that he had stood there mortally wounded and trying desperately not to let everyone else see it.

Then there was the date. Robin had been a revelation in so many ways. Really, he was a lovely man in every way. Urbane-"yes, I know big words," Buffy huffed to herself-accomplished, a true gentleman-and not in the 'my minions wear straightjackets and I collect hearts' sort of way. He understood slayers; his mother had been one. "Never knew any Slayers had kids! Giles has been holding out on me."

The food had been heavenly and she was enjoying the evening…and then she had felt those special tinglies. She had to give Spike credit. He hadn't given any sign that he was dying a bit seeing her with Robin. He had come to get her to go save Xander from the demon du jour. Then he'd nearly been skewered trying to protect her in the battle with the bitch too!

Now she was sitting on the sofa in the quiet dark, having just prevented Spike from leaving. Maybe she was being cruel. Maybe she was destroying what was left of his heart by keeping him there, but she had been honest. She wasn't ready for him to not be there.

Buffy wondered if she ever would be. Spike had been a part of her life for nearly as many years as Willow and Xander had been. He had been the thorn in her side, the partner AT her side and everything in between.
She was never stronger than when he was at her side, bringing out her best and encouraging her to never hold back with anything. He knew her better than anyone. She had noticed, even back before Angel had left her, that Spike was the one who understood, who saw. He was also the one who always came back.

The thought of him not being a part of her life chilled her. Even after that terrible end to their relationship, when he had gone off on his soul search, she had missed him terribly. She had felt the floor drop from under her when Clem had told her that Spike was gone. Every patrol that summer had ended at his crypt, supposedly to check out the History Channel with Clem, but really to see if Spike had returned.
She was equal parts relieved and horrified when he turned up in the school basement. Once she found him, she couldn't stay away, just like now with him here in her basement. Any free moment found her moving without thought towards the cellar door and his company. She found a strange peace with Spike that she got nowhere else, with no one else.

She had been frantic when the First took him, terrified that she would be too late and he would be lost forever.

Even Willow noticed it with Buffy's Freudian slip earlier today. "Why does everyone here think I'm still in love with Spike?" she had asked to Willow's wide-eyed, silent response. She could almost read Willow's mind: "Still huh? And when was it that you loved him previously?"

She had. Buffy hadn't wanted to, but she had loved Spike those months. She had been telling the truth when she told Spike that she "couldn't" love him…not that she "didn't." It was all about deliberate self-denial.

She was still desperately trying to be what everyone wanted of her. They wanted the Slayer they knew from before her death. They wanted their best buddy Buffy to pair up with a nice, normal guy and hang out when not saving the world one demon at a time. They wanted her to pay the bills, care for Dawn, notice their needs, do her duty and she was terrified of letting any of them down. They might leave her. So she could not love Spike, she dared not. That slip earlier spoke volumes though, and part of her was annoyed that Willow didn't even appear surprised.

"If they guessed, why didn't they care enough about me and my happiness to let me know they stood by me?" She wasn't the only bad friend that year.

Spike offering to leave had done one thing: it had made her face up to the fact that he was one essential in her life. The thought of him being gone was not an option. He was in her heart, and likely had been for a long time.

~~~
"Buffy…," Giles began again after the last of the Potentials filed out for morning training. "I believe you promised to continue our discussion about…Spike…and his presence, unchipped, in this house."

"Spike is fighting on our side, Giles. He was doing it before the soul and he'll be even more committed now that he has it."

"Yes, as to that…Buffy, you have to know that the soul is no guarantee of anything." Giles rubbed his eyes in weariness. "He could tear through the house and kill most of the girls before we were even alerted to the threat. You forget what a bloodthirsty killing machine William the Bloody is. He's run tame for too long and you have neglected to remember what you are dealing with in him."

"I'm not forgetting a thing," Buffy lowered her voice and glared at her Watcher. "In fact, I remembered things long after they mattered. He was changing all along and not one of us gave him a sliver of credit for it. He was going against his nature every single day."

"Yes, he was chipped. No doubt jolts of electricity would rearrange Hannibal Lecter's priorities too." Giles set his jaw in a determined-to-the-death pose.

"Did Dawn ever tell you about some of the conversations she used to have with Spike?" Buffy quirked an eyebrow, knowing full well her sister hadn't shared with anyone but her and then only during the summer that Spike was gone.

"I know he told her highly inappropriate stories and you had to continually threaten him to stop it."

"Yeah, well, they also played a little game too," Buffy let out a burst of laughter. "They tried to think of all the ways that Spike could still kill us all even with the chip. Dawn said he had a lot of really good ideas too. Everything from fire to hiring minions. The chip never stopped him from killing, only from feeding."

Giles blanched at the thought. Clearly he had forgotten whom he was dealing with as well.

"Naturally, Dawn had plenty of ideas to add to his." Buffy shook her head and laughed. They had been luckier than they deserved that Spike was who he was and not like most vampires she had encountered, not like Angelus. Angelus with a chip would have destroyed them all.

"The point is that Spike was trying. He was fighting to change, to grow and it was there for all of us to see if we wanted to."

"I suggested as much to him once and he threw it in my face," Giles smugly pointed out.

The look on his face annoyed Buffy for some reason. "Yeah, I remember you telling me. Wasn't that just after he got the chip?" She saw some of the smugness leave her Watcher's face. "None of us ever suggested it again, did we? None of us offered to help him find his way. He did pretty good on his own if you ask me." Buffy was surprised she hadn't really thought about that too much before now. "In fact, he had to struggle against us all reminding him how evil and worthless he was all the time."

Giles could see the pride on Buffy's face. Pride that only shows when you speak of the accomplishments of someone you love. "Buffy, I want better for you. A vampire…."

"Better?" That was new. Not 'normal' but 'better' this time. At least Giles had never pushed normal on her, not even in the early days when he openly discouraged her relationship with Owen. "You want better for me?"

"Of course, Buffy! I love you like a daughter. You are worthy of only the best life has to offer." Giles was determined to make her see the unsuitability of the vampire in the basement as any sort of attachment.

"Well, let's see, Giles," Buffy began to voice aloud the cataloging going on in her mind. "Spike willingly changed who he was completely for the love of me, and YES, he did love me even before the soul. He took care of Dawn and all of you when I was dead. You can't say he was doing it for any brownie points from me, because he had no way of knowing I was coming back! Even before that he let Glory torture him nearly to death to protect Dawn and me. He had no way of knowing anyone would find out where he was and rescue him. For all he knew, he was going to be tortured to death there."

She was on a roll now and no amount of "But, Buffy, surely!" comments would stop her.

"Better? He saved me from dancing to death while all the rest of you just looked on. He didn't leave when I gave him tons of reasons to. When I was a royal bitch, he let me work out all my issues on him and instead of fighting back, just told me to put it all on him until I nearly killed him and left him to the sunlight." She saw Giles eyebrows rise in surprise at that last piece of information. "So what does 'Mr. Not Good Enough' do? Well, he shows up at my birthday party the next week and helps me kill yet another demon."

"Buffy, he was obsessed with you. Still is, from the looks of it," Giles began.

"Not 'obsessed,' he loves me. He told me and I would just tell him he was beneath me, that there was no good in him, that he was nothing but a disgusting evil thing and still he loved me. Giles, I called him those things AFTER he had been there for me, tried to help me adjust. He'd been nothing but kind to me and after I started the kissage, he only asked for a simple conversation about what I wanted from him. Do you know the answer I gave, Giles?"

He shook his head, having a pretty good idea what the response might have been.

"I usually let my fists answer."

Giles figured it was time to play the trump card. "Buffy, I haven't brought it up, but I do know why Spike left to get his soul, what he did to you."

"Stop right there. That is something that is only between Spike and me. It's way too complicated to put into a couple of words and there's enough responsibility to go around several times. No one but Spike and I know what happened or why-and it's no one's business."

Giles looked indignant. "Buffy, it isn't unusual for the victim…"

"I'm nobody's victim, Giles. Not just because I'm the Slayer either. That subject is closed." Buffy's look brooked no argument. "Yes, he hurt me and because we had all driven home the idea that having a soul meant being and doing good, he went to get one so he'd never hurt me again. How many evil demons do you know that might even THINK to do that?"

Giles sputtered unintelligibly.

"Look, even now he's got my back. He suffered worse torture from the First than Glory ever planned to do to him. Spike knows he's a major target and instead of hitting the road and looking for safety or changing sides again, he's here helping me train the girls, offering to face the monster that nearly destroyed him just months ago!"

She looked with affection at Giles, knowing his love for her went beyond that of a Watcher. "You once warned me that if I revealed my identity as the Slayer I would put a normal human in grave danger. You were right. So what about a guy like Riley or Robin? Riley left and he never really had my heart, and I could never just be me with him. Robin? Not really interested. Spike KNOWS me and loves me as I am…with no conditions or restrictions. I can be myself with him, all my selves." She laughed at the idea that she had so many sides and he loved them all, even the ugly ones.

"So tell me, Giles, who would be better? Who could love me better than he has and does? He loved Dru for a century. If that's not loyalty and commitment, I don't know what is."

"If you are settling for Spike because he won't leave you," Giles offered, "You have to know that not everyone leaves."

"Angel left…they all left. Spike came back."

Giles grasped at a last straw. "Angel," he exclaimed, "You said you'd never love again like you loved Angel. You said that not all that long ago either." He looked triumphant, sure he had finally come up with a winning argument.

"Yes, I loved Angel. Of course I'll never love that way again. Too much has happened for me to ever love that way again, all fresh and pure, that first time love. I'll never be that open and heart whole again. There've been too many goodbyes, mistakes like Parker and Riley, to ever have that 'head in the clouds/rose-colored glasses' love again. Maybe that just means I've grown up. Do you still love your first love the same way? Do you even remember who she was? And if you saw her again, would she be the way you remembered her?

Giles shot her a blank look. She idly wondered if he COULD remember.

"When I saw Angel after my resurrection, we mostly sat in uncomfortable silence. Lots of hugs and 'Can't believe you're back' and then he talked about some monastery with demons and about Cordy and some guy named Fred. It was like we ran out of things to say. Just silence 'til he said he had to head back to beat the sunlight. I watched him leave and didn't feel a thing. I thought it was part of the general 'not feeling stuff,' but I know now that it was just that I'd, you know, grown up…moved on."

"Moved on to Spike." Giles sounded nearly resigned.

"Spike knows I'm stronger than him and it makes him proud; makes him love me more, not less. He knows Buffy the girl too and takes care of her, not coddling. He's tender with the girl side of me and he challenges the Slayer. He continues to love and help me no matter what gets tossed his way."

Giles sighed in defeat. Seems having this little talk had only clarified Buffy's feelings, rather than giving her pause for thought.

"I'm going to have to save the world again and who is at my side? Angel? Nope. He's been a no-show since graduation. Not showing up for our annual apocalypses, even though they always fall around the same time each year. Who has been there? Spike. This is not for first time either. This is the third time he's helped with world savage, first time with a soul though. As for saving ME…I can't count the number."

Buffy scooted the stool away from the counter, her face brightening as if a great mystery had finally been solved. "You know what? I need to say this to him, not you. Thanks, Giles."

As her hand grasped the cellar door handle, she turned to her Watcher and shot him a large smile, the first he'd seen from her in ages, "You want better for me? That's what I'm going to go get, go do. Make it better." And with that, Giles watched as his Slayer headed down to her Vampire.

~fin