Chapter Notes:

So . . . I really did intend to update last night. In fact, yesterday at lunch I was reading comments and responded to juggler that I would be updating last night unless I got jumped with a "to-do" list when I got home from work. And then, I was about halfway home, and my mom called and said as soon as I got home we were going grocery shopping, and we didn't get home until after 10pm and we had to put everything away . . . so yeah. I was abducted and for that I'm sorry. Anyway, here's the chapter, loosely based on parts of "Shadow" and "Listening to Fear". In the series the one episode flows right into the other, but as Dawn noted last chapter things are running a little behind with Joyce's medical care so there are some extra days in here. Dawn has several theories on that, but it honestly doesn't matter which (if any) are correct. It's just my inner sci-fi nerd showing through, honestly . . . Enough babbling now. Enjoy.

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CH 15

"Riley?" There was no one around, but this was still a hospital, so Dawn did her best to keep her voice down. Why was Riley calling her? Okay, so they got along better in this timeline than in her first, but they still weren't close. She'd managed to have a few conversations with him about Buffy since that day they moved Xander out of his basement, but she was hardly his confidant. There was no apocalypse brewing, and Buffy's birthday wasn't for another couple of months – though Christmas was soon, she supposed. She'd hardly thought about it with everything that was going on. She doubted Buffy or her mom had either. Did Riley need present advice?

"Have you seen Buffy?"

Dawn tried to remember what day it was, but there were too many images lingering in her mind, too many other times. The day was out for now, but she knew where she was, right? She was at the hospital because mom was having her biopsy, which was different from last time, because last time the biopsy happened right after the CAT scan. Only this time there wasn't an OR available and they had to wait a week. It probably wasn't important, but it did seem weird. Although Buffy hadn't run into Glory so much this time, so maybe Glory was brain sucking more people and the hospital was busier? That might explain why Glory was behind schedule too. It made as much sense as relative positions in time. Anyway, it didn't seem like the extra week was going to make much difference— and what was she supposed to be thinking about? Oh. Buffy. Buffy was not at the hospital. Which was unusual. Buffy liked to be at mom's tests. She also didn't like to leave Dawn alone. The only reason she had today was that—

"Buffy has class right now and then she's meeting us at the hospital."

"Hospital?" Riley echoed. "Why are you at the hospital, and who's 'us'? Did that blond demon attack again?"

His voice rose with his anxiety and Dawn pressed a hand to her forehead to stem the resulting throbbing. "What? No. Mom had tests."

"Joyce? What's wrong with Joyce? Didn't they take care of her headaches?"

He was just a bundle of questions today wasn't he? And, wait— Riley didn't know about the shadow in mom's brain? She was pretty sure he'd known last time. She had a vague recollection of him sitting beside Buffy in the hospital lobby, but maybe that wasn't supposed to have happened yet. Only, she was pretty sure in her original future Riley showed up while they were waiting for mom to finish her CAT scan. So Buffy had to have told him.

Only . . . no. She'd been surprised to see him, hadn't she?

So Buffy didn't tell Riley that mom's "nothing" headaches might be "something" headaches. Someone else had. She was pretty sure Buffy told the others later in the day, so it wasn't one of them. In fact, the only person who knew before they got the results was . . . Spike! Spike told Riley? When would he have seen Riley? Except . . . he'd had all that stuff hadn't he? Buffy's stuff? Maybe he'd taken advantage of knowing they'd all be out of the house and gone to steal things. And then Riley had stopped by and— God, men were idiots. Especially insecure vampire men. Though, to be fair, Spike had no conscience and it wasn't like the scoobs had been helping him keep on the straight and narrow. They were probably lucky all he did was steal sweaters and spill secrets.

In the original timeline everything had progressed so quickly Buffy probably hadn't even thought to call Riley. She was too upset. And he'd kinda been there for the rest since the hospital put mom on the fast track for biopsy and surgery.

Riley didn't know about the CAT scan in this timeline, because Spike hadn't run into him and told him. But it had been almost a week since then. Buffy hadn't gotten around to telling her boyfriend about mom in all that time? Wow, she'd never realized how bad Buffy was at the girlfriend thing. No wonder Riley had complexes. It would be one thing if Buffy was so upset she couldn't talk about it with anyone, but she'd literally told, like, everyone except her boyfriend. Dawn could see how that might upset a guy.

Of course, she'd spent the last month explaining to him and to Buffy why they were never going to work out, so she didn't see why he was so surprised.

Still, what Buffy had done? It was beyond thoughtless.

Poor guy.

"Um, no." She bit her lip, uncomfortable with being the one to tell him. Only, it'd be cruel not to tell him now. Riley would be upset, which meant Buffy would be upset (because this sort of thing? Totally confirmed all Riley's insecurities. He was definitely going to have words with Buffy), but that wasn't her problem. It might actually help on the convincing Riley to move on quickly front. Not that she wanted them to have a bad breakup, but maybe that part was beyond her control. "They think— Well, there've been more tests. They think it's a tumor."

"Damn it."

Yep. Not happy. She should probably calm him down a bit before he found Buffy. Even if Buffy didn't deserve it right now. It wasn't like a well-deserved verbal flogging from Riley would change anything. Except, maybe, to make Buffy retreat even further into herself.

"Riley?"

"What?" he snapped. Before she could protest his tone he sighed. "Sorry. It's not you, I'm just . . . I'm a little frustrated. It's been a rough couple of months."

"I know. It's been rough for Buffy too."

"I know."

"And I'm not saying it's okay that she didn't tell you, but . . . you know it wasn't on purpose, right?" Because Buffy wasn't deliberately cruel, she'd just never really made Riley a part of her world. He was the boyfriend addendum, something she was supposed to have because it was normal. She probably hadn't thought about him in days.

Another heavy sigh sounded through the phone, and then a wry chuckle. "I know. Trust me, I know. I think that's the real problem. At least if it was on purpose I'd know she was thinking of me."

Wow. Something she'd done must have gotten through, because that was an incredibly accurate assessment. Too bad she was in no state to capitalize on it. She was feeling much better than she had when she arrived, but her brain was operating nowhere near one hundred percent.

"I don't think she's thinking much of anyone right now. Too much going on, you know? I mean, the only reason she sees the gang at all is because she's doing research at the Box and they're always there. Or, well, she's having Giles research. She just comes to collect information and hit things. No one's been to the house in weeks."

"Right."

She must have said something wrong, because the edge was back in his voice, but even with careful mental review she couldn't figure out what it was.

Riley's tone was terse now. "Look, I appreciate what you're trying to do. And I know she's your sister. But I think I need to talk to Buffy now."

"Oh, um, okay."

Crap. That was not the sound of a happy boyfriend. Or even a resigned about-to-instigate-a-mutual-break-up boyfriend. And, oh God, was he going to break up with Buffy now? Because breaking them up early was always the plan, but she was kinda hoping for after mom's surgery - in that lull when they all thought she would be alright. Which, actually, that wouldn't be very early. Maybe she hadn't really been going for early so much as more amiable? Less traumatic? At least less bitey.

She had to do something. She had to fix this.

"Rile—"

The phone disconnected. There was no point in calling him back, she doubted he would answer.

Great, now she'd have to deal with a crabby Buffy on top of a pounding headache when her sister arrived. She almost wished she'd let Spike stay. At least then she wouldn't have to drive everyone home.

She thought about the piece of paper in her wallet. Her golden ticket to ending Glory.

On second thought, driving difficulties aside, it was a good thing Spike hadn't stuck around.

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Buffy moved through the campus at near-slayer speeds, just managing to keep it in check because it was only late afternoon and there were people everywhere. It was kinda hard to care about all that when her mom was at the hospital finding out whether or not she had cancer and her stupid sister insisted on hanging out there unattended, even though a super-strong baddie was actively hunting her. How long would it have been since Dawn left Spike's crypt now? An hour maybe? More? She'd made Dawn promise to stay with him until the last possible moment, but he couldn't stay with her at the hospital. Even if Spike could get into Sunnydale Memorial in the middle of the afternoon (and he probably could) he couldn't stay long. Too many windows. And too many people trained to notice when someone didn't have a pulse. Still, stubborn Dawn had insisted on being there when mom woke up. She said one of them should be, and Buffy had class. Her Medieval History Professor was notorious for giving pop quizzes, and he didn't care if people had legitimate reasons to miss class - a no show was a zero. Of course there hadn't been a quiz today, because the universe was like that, so Buffy had left Dawn unguarded for nothing.

Buffy needed to get to the hospital. Like, now.

So of course her last class ran late. Stupid Medieval History.

She was in such a hurry she nearly bowled Riley over when he stepped into her path.

"Riley?" What was he doing here? He made a point of avoiding campus since the whole Initiative fiasco. She didn't know if it was bad memories, or if they'd kicked him out.

"About time."

He sounded testy. Why was he testy? Although, he didn't look as though he'd been trying to surprise her, so maybe he'd called out to her and she hadn't noticed? She was a little preoccupied. Justifiably so, if anyone wanted her opinion, and she really needed to go.

"Can we walk and talk?" she asked.

He scowled and she cringed. Okay, that was looking like a no.

"Riley," she said as gently as her impatience would allow. "I need to get to the hospital."

"I know," he said, arms crossed firmly. "You want to tell me why I had to find out from your sister that something might be seriously wrong with your mom?"

She tried to remember when the last time was they'd talked about her mom's condition. Maybe when she first fainted? Actually, that was probably the last time they'd really spent any time together at all, except the other day when he'd rescued her from the stake stealing vamp and patched up her side. She winced. Yeah, so, a couple weeks ago maybe?

Still, what came out of her mouth was, "When did you see Dawn?"

"Seriously? That's what you got out of this? Buffy, you never talk to me anymore!"

God, she so didn't have time for this.

"Riley, I swear we will talk about this later, but I have to go. Now, when did you see Dawn?"

"I didn't," he said stiffly. "I called her, looking for you. She said she was at the hospital."

At least Dawn wasn't wandering the streets on her own. "How long has she been there? Was Spike with her?"

His expression darkened even further. "Why do you care?"

Buffy didn't want to escalate; she knew how Riley felt about Spike. She didn't really get why, because only a month ago he'd been doing better with this, but she did know the hate was back, stronger than ever. And she couldn't blame him for it, even if it didn't make sense, not really. He'd been trained to fight the things that went bump in the night, not work with them. For that matter, the same went for her. So she got that he didn't trust Spike, but his sudden attitude was seriously getting on her nerves. How did he not get that now was not the time for this?

"Does that mean he's not?"

A muscle ticked in Riley's jaw. Huh, Spike did that too. Was it a guy thing? She tried to remember if Xander or Giles did that, but couldn't. She didn't really pay that much attention to Xander's or Giles' face. At least not in detail.

"I didn't ask."

She clenched her teeth. Why was he being so uncooperative? Couldn't he see she needed his support right now? She never had to spell these things out for Spike. And wasn't that terrible? Of course, Spike had been her mortal enemy for almost a year. He'd had good reason to study the way she operated, the way she thought. Know your enemy and all. Plus, predator. So it was probably a good sign Riley couldn't practically read her mind like Spike could, even if it was inconvenient.

Pushing her irritation aside, she stepped around the solid wall of her boyfriend. "I need to get to the hospital before Dawn and mom leave. Are you coming?"

She heard him turn, but there were no footsteps behind her. That was a no, then? Or maybe he was waiting for her to turn around?

"Why do you let him spend so much time with her? With both of them? You shouldn't want that blood sucking animal anywhere near your family."

Buffy stopped, fists clenching spastically at her side. Slowly she turned. "Spike is Dawn's friend," she said with careful control. "He's not going to hurt her."

Riley sneered. Her all-American, boy next door, boyfriend actually sneered at her. It did unpleasant things to his features. Riley was not meant for sneering. "He's a demon, Buffy. One of those things you claim to hate."

Why did it feel like she'd just had this argument? Maybe because she had - twice. Only she'd been on the other side both of those times. Being on this side she could understand a little of Dawn's frustration. "It's different. He's different. He's helping. At least for now."

"Exactly. For now. What happens later?"

She hated that he was saying things she'd thought so recently - still thought, on some level. But Dawn made points. Good points. And wasn't it sending the wrong message to stake someone when they were fighting the good fight? She didn't want to discourage defectors, or something. Besides, who would help her protect Dawn if Spike was gone?

Why did everything have to be so difficult? "I don't know," she admitted. "Okay? I don't. But I can't worry about that right now. I need him."

"You need him?" Riley echoed, and somehow now he seemed more sad than angry. "Maybe that's the problem. You need him. You don't need me."

Not this again. God, could he be any more childish? "Is that what this is about? You want me to need you?" He didn't say anything, but the way he averted his eyes was telling. She shook her head. "If that's it, then we have a problem. Because, Riley, it's never going to happen. I'm sorry. I care about you, but I can't stand back and let you take care of me. You can't take care of me. You're human." It didn't occur to her until his hurt, angry eyes met hers that she'd just confirmed every fear he'd expressed over the last few months.

"Riley, I didn't mean it like that. Look, you're human, so you're not strong enough to go head to head with my enemies. But that's okay. I don't need you to. I don't need you to be my hero, I just need you to be my boyfriend." Why couldn't that be enough for him? Maybe Dawn was right, maybe she and Riley couldn't make it work. Maybe they weren't right for each other and they'd never be able to make it fit. But right now, while he was hurting and she was frustrated, wasn't the time to make life altering relationship decisions. She might not be madly in love with Riley, but she cared about him. And he wasn't a bad boyfriend - when he wasn't being paranoid and crazy. He loved her.

"So comforting you when you're upset – that's still something I can do right?"

She softened a little, despite her impatience. "Yes. That's very boyfriendly."

His eyes narrowed. "Which is why you were balling your eyes out in Spike's arms the other night instead of mine?"

That stopped Buffy cold. "What?"

"I saw you, Buffy. With him." He spat the last word like it was poison.

Buffy tried to remember the last time she and Spike had been in public together. At the Magic Box, sure, but the whole gang was there and Spike was mostly with Dawn. Whispering. She hated it when they did that. Buffy and Spike hadn't been on patrol together, since she had them on rotation. Except for the last few nights, when he'd been doing all the patrolling. But even then the only time they'd been alone together was that first evening when she'd asked him about the slayers he killed. And she was hardly balling her eyes out. At least not until after she found out about mom's new tests. And then she'd gone out to the back porch and—

"Have you been spying on me?"

"I didn't know stopping by my girlfriend's house was considered spying."

"It is if you lurk in the shadows and leave without telling her you were there!" He'd been there that night, and he hadn't even tried to see her? And why? Because he was jealous of a relationship that could never, ever, happen? When did he get so insecure? No, wait, she knew exactly when.

"You were all over each other. What did you want me to do? Storm in and make a scene?"

"We were not all over each other. I was crying, he held me. Friends do things like that."

"You're not friends!" Riley practically roared.

Her natural response was to object. Of course she and Spike were friends. Except . . . hadn't she just told Dawn they weren't? God, she didn't even know anymore. Why did everything have to be so complicated? Even Angel wasn't this complicated, and he had a soul.

She concentrated on giving him an answer rather than yelling at him out of rustration. "Not good ones, no, but we're not enemies anymore. And, to answer your question, no. You didn't need to storm in and make a scene." But he didn't need to nurse a grudge either. The psych TA thing might have been a cover story, but shouldn't he have learned something? "You wouldn't make a scene if you found Xander comforting me."

"Xander is one of your best friends. He's my friend. He's not a monster."

"So what's the real problem here, Riley? That he's a monster, or that you think he has a thing for me? Because, not to give you a new target or anything, but Xander's had a thing for me for, like, ever."

"This isn't about that," he denied. "I don't like how close you're letting him get."

Buffy counted to ten in her head. She was not having this argument again. She wasn't. She needed to get to the hospital and clearly Riley was not feeling rational right now. Still, if she left it like this he'd probably do something stupid, like go after Spike. And then he'd be dead, or at least seriously injured, because Spike would wipe the floor with him. And he'd be perfectly justified in doing it. He had a right to defend himself, even she knew that. And there was no doubt who would win a fight between the two.

"This thing you think is between Spike and I? It's not. It never will be. But we need him. This woman who's after me? She's strong, Riley. Stronger than me. Spike's the only other person I know who even has half a chance against her, so I need him on our side. The minute he stops being on our side? I'll end him. But I get to make that call, Riley, not you. Okay?"

He held her gaze, seething, unrelenting.

Some part of her gave up. She couldn't make him play nice and she didn't have time to babysit him right now. She would just have to hope common sense won out in the end.

She sighed and let her body slump into a non-threatening posture. "Look, I really have to go now. Do you want to come with?"

That muscle in his jaw ticked again and his hands clenched into fists. The anger faded from his expression as their gazes held. At length he dropped his chin and shook his head.

She'd sort of expected it, but the part of her that was desperate to make this work –to make them work- was still hurt. Maybe when mom was better and things settled down a little they could talk this out. Decide where they were headed. It might be time to at least take a break, painful though that would be.

"I'll call you," she said. She thought he might have nodded again, but she was already on the move, trying to make up for lost time.

She didn't notice the tears Riley blinked away or the resignation that replaced them. She didn't see his shoulders slump before he determinedly squared them and walked away. She didn't notice him dialing a number on his cell phone, or hear him greet Graham. She didn't notice. She didn't have the time.

When she arrived at the hospital, Dawn was just helping mom into her coat. Mom seemed a little groggy, but otherwise okay.

"Hey, how'd it go?" she asked, forcing cheer she didn't feel into her tone.

"Oh, it was lovely," Joyce said tiredly. "I think I know how those alien abductee people feel now. I've been poked and prodded to within an inch of my life."

"They wanted to keep her until the surgery, but I told them we can look after her," Dawn said.

Surgery? There was going to be surgery?

"They found something?" Buffy asked, though it was hard to squeeze the words out around the sudden lump in her throat.

"Low grade glioma," Dawn said. "Good news is she doesn't seem to have anything else. Like, it didn't spread from her lymph nodes or something. And there's a really good chance they can get it all in a single surgery."

How was brain cancer the good news? And when did her sister get so strong? Her brave face was very convincing. Buffy wouldn't even have known Dawn was chewing on the inside of her lower lip except that she knew to look for it.

Dawn looked meaningfully at mom and Buffy forced a smile.

"Well, we'd better get you home before they change their mind then, yeah?" Maybe she'd skip out on classes the next couple weeks. At least until mom's surgery and recovery were over. It was almost winter break anyway. Though she hated to miss finals after going to class all quarter. She was actually doing well this year.

Joyce smiled weakly. "Please."

"Where'd you park?" Buffy asked her sister. Dawn didn't answer and Buffy frowned. Dawn looked almost as bad as mom, now that she thought about it. Weird. "Dawnie?"

Dawn started "Huh? What?"

Buffy eyed her with suspicion. Was she thinking about mom? The doctor must have talked to them right? She wished they'd waited for her, but it wasn't like she would have known what any of it meant anyway. Dawn was the smart one. And, anyway, Dawn didn't look worried. Well, she did, but more than that she looked tired. Like, exhausted tired. Was Dawn not getting enough sleep? Was it mom, or the key thing? Buffy knew if some crazy-strong demon was after her she'd have trouble sleeping. Or, well, demons were always after her, but aside from Spike and a few others none had been hunting her. Specifically. Like, they wouldn't follow her home or something. Besides, she was the slayer. It was her job to deal with things that went bump in the night. So it was probably better to say that if she was a mostly normal girl, or at least a normally strong girl –because Dawn wasn't really normal– and a crazy-strong demon was after her, she'd have trouble sleeping.

"Where are the keys?" she asked.

"What?" Dawn's eyes widened, looking distinctly panicked.

Buffy compressed her lips into a firm line and held out her hand. "Keys."

Dawn clutched her purse tight to her chest, like she was walking through a bad section of L.A. She shook her head. And did she really have to do that so frantically? Buffy wasn't that bad a driver.

"Dawnie," she said.

"No way. You are not driving."

Buffy propped her hands on her hips. "I can totally drive."

"Tell that to the stop sign you hit in driver's ed. And the park bench. And the tree."

"Okay, okay, I get it," Buffy snapped. "Sheesh. You hit a couple of stationary objects and everybody things you're Evel Knievel."

Dawn frowned. "Uh, Buffy. Evel Knievel can drive."

"Whatever. I can drive."

"Girls, could you not argue?" Joyce asked, a hand pressed to her forehead.

Both girls were immediately contrite.

"Dawn will drive," Joyce said.

Buffy pushed out her lower lip in a pout. "Not you too, mom."

"It's alright, dear." Joyce patted her shoulder with weary sluggishness. "It's not like you need a car most of the time. No one can be good at everything."

Not helpful. But her mom was sick, so Buffy didn't say anything. Instead she wrinkled her nose at Dawn, who made a face right back. Surprisingly, mom didn't comment. Buffy looked to her in question and found her eyes focused on a chair against the far wall.

"Who is that?" she asked.

Buffy followed her gaze and frowned. Her eyes met Dawn's and the other girl shrugged. There was no one there.

"She looks like Dawnie when she was younger. Before she cut her hair," Joyce continued.

Buffy breath caught in her throat as she remembered the pictures at home, and how they'd shown a much younger Dawn, when she was under that trance-y spell. Was something wrong with the monks' memory spell? What if people started forgetting Dawn? Demon-chic was sure to notice if everyone in town freaked out whenever Dawn got near them.

Then again, mom had been being really weird recently. Maybe it was just her?

"The doctor said she might see things," Dawn whispered. "Say things. It's the tumor. Pressure on the brain."

Buffy nodded.

The nurse at the counter was staring at them, and Buffy was afraid they'd make mom stay for another night for observation if they didn't get her out of there soon. "Uh, let's get home," she urged, still looking at Dawn. Dawn nodded, already searching through her purse for the keys to the Jeep.

Buffy sent a silent prayer to the powers that this was just a fluke. She couldn't handle anymore stress in her life right now.

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Chapter End Notes:

So. Bet you weren't expecting Riley to be Dawn's caller, huh? But most of you will be glad to see the break-up sotryline progressing :-) Yeah, Riley is about to be history. Half a chapter and the epilogue left of part III, so I may update next weekend. It'll depend on what's happening at home, since Christmas will be less than one week away. But I've got most of Christmas week off, so I should be able to squeeze in at least one chapter, maybe 2 as a prezzie.

Thanks for reading,

reenas-as