Giles watched Buffy go through the motions. She was opening her gifts and holding them up, smiling for all to see. A cashmere sweater in a pale blue joined a pair of earrings in the pile beside her. The others watched her approvingly, seeing only what she wanted them to see.
He wanted to scream at them. How could they not see beyond the subterfuge?How could they not see her?
She had retreated as soon as Dawn left for college. The lively well adjusted act had fallen away when the others weren't present. When she had given up her flat in Rome to move into his home he had rejoiced. The hope that they would be able to repair their relationship had died quickly.
Oh, she smiled at him occasionally and sat with him during meals. She barely ate, no matter what he placed before her. She looked like a wraith moving through his home. The smallest pants hung on her hip bones. She looked like a little girl playing dress up in her mother's clothes.
He had tried taking her out. The movies, the theatre, the opera, not one of them had interested her in the slightest. She slayed. It was all she did. She patrolled all night and then disappeared into the underground to hunt the stragglers. None of the other slayers would go with her. She refused to teach the new girls and the others were afraid of her.
She cared enough to spare her friends, or, perhaps, this was an attempt to protect herself from their concern.
He tossed back a drink. His slayer was dying. He could see it. He knew she was looking for the demon that would finish her. She had killed off every master in Europe and Asia. One of them had all but gutted her, but she had duck taped her skin and gone after his mate. The hospital in Venice hadn't thought she would make it through the night, but she had been up and signing herself out the next day. In Moscow, he'd found her passed out in an empty apartment half drained and covered in ashes. She had sobbed as he cleaned her up and forced juice down her throat, too weak to fight him. The battle in Barcelona had resulted in a compact fracture of her femur. She had hobbled into the slayer house and collapsed. The local watcher had called him from the hospital. She was gone before he could arrive. The other watcher had lauded her dedication. It had taken all of his control not to flatten the bastard. The worst situation by far had been in Prague. Drusilla had found Buffy and begged to be dusted. Buffy had obliged her after the pair had clung to each other sobbing over their shared losses. He had watched as his slayer scrape the floor of the old building, trying to gather the ashes of the last Aurelian.
The nightmares had started again after that. Buffy had asked Willow to magically soundproof her room when the screams had brought him running for nine days straight. He should have stopped that. Knowing she was suffering was agony if he could hear her or not.
He had to help her. This group Christmas celebration had failed. He could see that even as it continued around him. She had slid back into the façade, and the people that had fought by her side so many times had accepted it. Perhaps the bonds they had forged were another casualty of the war with the First Evil.
Dawn laughed and pulled the woolen hat that looked like a kitten on her head. A fleeting smile graced Buffy's lips.
"You knitted this?" Dawn looked at her sister.
"I'm good with pointy wooden things." Buffy shrugged. "It helps pass the time between patrols. The yarn is soft and I like the feel of it in my hands."
The group moved on. Each showing off their gifts in turn. Her eyes followed the action, but she wasn't truly involved. She didn't bother to smile unless their eyes were on her.
"Heard you ran into a bit of trouble in Athens a couple of months back." Xander handed her a sloppily wrapped present. "These might help."
The weighted throwing knives were added to the little pile of things beside her with the same grateful smile as all the rest. She had learned how to hold them all at bay.
Something had to be done. If he failed, this would be her last Christmas.
He poured another drink.
Buffy handed him a festive present. The striped paper and the gold bow looked like a modern take on Victorian decor. He peeled the tape back gently and slid the box out. The sweater she had knitted him was a moss green. When had she made this? He looked into her sad eyes and saw the tears threatening to spill.
"It is lovely, Buffy. Thank you." He put the sweater down and opened his arms, hoping there was enough life left in her to reach out. She was in his arms in a flash of movement. Her wretched sobs filled the room. "I'm so sorry, Buffy. I know it hurts."
He looked up to see the others staring at them in shock. Good, this might all come right after all. He stroked Buffy's back and rocked gently, trying to soothe her.
"So, you can't even pretend anymore." Dawn's voice was icy as she stood and tossed her kitten hat to the floor. "You promised me I wouldn't have to put up with any more of your drama. You promised."
"I'm sorry." Buffy shuddered in his arms and pushed away from him gently. She stoked one hand on his arm before pulling herself from his grasp and standing up. "I'll go patrol."
She was gone before he could stop her.
"Why?" He turned toward Dawn. "She's suffering. What could possess you to be so cruel?"
"What's going on here?" Xander stood. "We're attacking Dawn because Buffy the drama queen stormed off again?"
"Xander, would you please take Dawn upstairs." Willow sighed and set aside her still wrapped gift. "I need to talk to Giles alone."
Xander looked at the pile of Buffy's things on the floor and nodded.
"Come on, Dawn. Let's go put some of this stuff away." Xander nudged her and pocked up his stuff. "This place may be bigger than the Sunnydale Museum was, but it gets messy pretty fast."
Dawn shrugged and grabbed her stuff. She stomped from the room with Xander in tow.
Giles looked at Willow and waited. The young witch fidgeted. Her eyes darted around the room. He hadn't seen her this nervous since the high school years.
"Just spit it out, Willow."
"They did a spell that first night after Sunnydale." Willow sounded tired. "Kennedy called me when she caught them."
"They both knew better, but they did it anyway." She stood up and started to pace. "They wanted to alleviate their sadness and guilt. I can understand it. It wasn't meant badly, but they used a spell from a grimoire they found in Anya's stuff on the bus."
"Why would they do such a thing?" He swallowed.
"They wanted the pain to stop." Willow sighed. "And it did. The spell worked for them. Buffy absorbs their pain and it never ends because they never deal with it and she can't."
"Why would they do such a thing to Buffy?" He fought down the urge to beat the lot of them to bloody pulps for hiding this.
"They misread the spell." Willow sighed. "They thought they were asking for strength like hers."
"Why haven't you reversed the spell?"
"It would hurt them, and Buffy refused to do it. Only the victim can. There's a counter spell, but that's complicated, too. The counter spell can be done by one that loved her purely. Only that person can even read the counter spell." Willow rolled her eyes.
"Get me the book." Giles grabbed his drink and tossed it back. "And get Dawn and Xander."
"Giles, I've done the research..."
"I have more resources than you, Willow." He pulled his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Three years of suffering and you just shrug your shoulders. Buffy has been trying to end her life for the last year. She's come close on at least nine occasions. I brought you here in hopes of lifting her spirits, and now she is shattered, out on patrol. I wonder which hospital will call tonight."
"She told me it was just slaying." Willow looked up at him with her wide eyes. "I didn't know it was that bad."
"I don't want to hear your excuses. I want the book and I need to speak with Xander and Dawn." He slammed the flat of his tablet he table.
An exchange of angry hisses and the scuffle of feet heralded the appearance of the main culprits. He turned. Their familiar faces seemed foreign now.
"How could you let her suffer for you? She was injured and mourning the loss of her lover and you dumped all your pain into her, locked it up inside her and went on with your lives."
"She wouldn't do the spell reversal." Xander sat down. "She refused, so it's not my problem."
"She gets mopey around the holidays. She'll bounce back soon." Dawn flopped onto the couch beside Xander. "She always does."
Willow walked in and handed him the cordovan encased text. He stroked the cover, assessing it with all his senses. The darkness of the contents made him shudder. This was a demon's grimoire. The fools had done something far worse than he had suspected, flipping through the book sickened him. Anya had kept this as a remembrance of Halfrek. It hadn't been something she used.
He looked at the trio arrayed about his living room. They should have come to him. Xander and Dawn were caught up in the spell, but Willow had no such excuse. Buffy had been hurting for years. Why had they let her suffer?
"The three of you have one hour to get out of my house. I love you, but Buffy needs to feel safe in her home. I can not condone what you have done. I can not begin to understand it. If Buffy can be saved, it will be due in no part to any of you. I hope she can forgive you this crime. I find I can not. Your hour begins now."
Giles stalked from the room ignoring their tears and angry words. Buffy was his daughter, not the flesh of his flesh, but the child of his soul. He had failed her too often. This time he could not.