Merry Christmas - as a prezzie, here's an extra chapter. if you didn't read the chapter posted earlier this week do that first.

Based on no specific episode, but with elements of "Shadow" and "Into the Woods"

xxxxxxxxxxxxx

CH 17

Buffy closed her eyes and took a deep breath before turning to face her boyfriend. Okay, that thing about forgiving him for ignoring her calls? Maybe not so much. Way to miss all the important stuff.

"Riley." She tried not to sound as angry as she felt. But, honestly, he gave her all that crap about how she didn't need him enough, and then when she did need him he ignored her. What was up with that?

"Guess I, uh, missed the meeting, huh?" Riley tried to joke.

And everything else. Buffy's arms crossed under her chest almost without her permission.

"Guess you did."

He didn't look as sorry as she thought he should. Instead he seemed to be surveying the street.

He reached for her elbow and she stepped away. He hardly seemed to notice, redirecting his hand to rub the back of his neck. "Can I, uh, talk to you?"

"I thought that's what you were doing?"

"Buffy." He sighed, like she was the one being difficult. Maybe from his point of view she was.

She made the conscious decision to be less confrontational. She let her arms drop to her sides and turned to face him more fully. "What can I help you with, Riley?" she asked, keeping her tone as neutral as she could manage without tipping over into flat. Flat always came across as angry.

His eyes bore into hers, searching. "You want to go somewhere?" he asked.

Buffy shrugged.

He started walking and she followed him to a park a few blocks away. There wasn't anyone around so they took a seat on the swings. It was silent for a long time. Buffy wasn't feeling very patient, she wanted to get home to mom, but this was Riley's thing. She would wait.

"I love you," he finally said. "You know that right?"

Oh. This was going to be that conversation. All Buffy's residual anger bled away, a hollow resignation taking its place. She'd been hoping to put this off until after mom was better, but if Riley wanted to do this now . . .

He reached for her hand and this time she let him take it.

"And I know you love me," he said. "But, I don't think you're in love with me."

There was a time a statement like that would have hurt. At the very least she should have been upset with him for telling her how she felt. But . . . the thing was, he was right. She knew he was right.

Riley smiled sadly. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

"I'm sorry," Buffy said, and she meant it. She kept thinking she'd get there one day, but it wasn't happening. Maybe Dawnie was right, maybe he just wasn't the one.

"I know."

Surprisingly, Riley didn't seem all that upset. Not happy, but . . . more resigned than angry. What with all their recent arguing she'd sort of expected this to be a big blow up. If she was totally honest, that was probably the real reason she'd been putting this conversation off. She hated personal confrontation. Maybe it was because she was a divorcee kid. Or maybe it was because so much of the rest of her life was conflict.

"So, um, where is this going?" she asked. It was going to be really awkward if they broke up. Since the army pulled out, Riley didn't have a life here outside of her. At least, not that he'd ever shared with her. His only friends were her friends, he wasn't going to school; she'd never gotten around to asking if he had a job.

Riley shifted his hand over hers to lace their fingers together. His eyes met hers. "I got a job offer. Covert operation. Demon hunting." He took a deep breath. "I want to take it."

Buffy blinked, replaying the words in her head. Riley was leaving? He was leaving.

That actually . . . made sense, really. The only reason he was still in Sunnydale was her. And, God, it suddenly hit her how big that was. No wonder he needed her to need him, he'd given up everything to stay with her and she'd just—

Yeah. She'd never even realized. How could she have never noticed they wanted completely different things out of a relationship? And it wasn't that either of them was wrong. They were just incompatible.

Irreconcilable differences, wasn't that what they were called? Riley wanted to build his life around someone, wanted them to build their life around him, and she couldn't do that. So much of her life was set in stone, destined. She needed someone who could slip into the spaces and fill the emptiness that her calling left behind. It was like . . . they were both puzzle pieces, only their blips and hollows didn't match up.

She didn't share her revelation; she had an idea he'd already figured all of that out.

"Is that where you've been?" she asked.

He rubbed his neck sheepishly. "I'm sorry. I had a lot of calls to make. I didn't get your message until half an hour ago."

Well, at least he hadn't been flat-out ignoring her.

"What do you want me to say?"

"Goodbye, I guess? Maybe that you forgive me." He gave her a boyish sort of embarrassed smile.

And even though she understood, she still felt tears burning behind her eyes. Riley was a good guy. A great guy – when he wasn't being paranoid crazy. But that was mostly the drugs and the chip. Riley was sweet, and caring, and friendly. He would have been a good friend, probably. But she understood why he couldn't stay.

"I forgive you," she said, because she did. Because she needed to. These last few weeks had been more than a little rocky. "Forgive me too?"

His smile softened. "Of course." He held his arms open and she moved into them. "If you ever need my help, call me?" he murmured against her ear.

She sniffed, nodded against him, arms tightening around him. "You too. Or, uh, maybe not. The government probably doesn't like me much."

He chuckled as he released her. He took her hand, squeezed it gently. "I love you."

She blinked, because even though it seemed like all they did lately was argue, even though Dawnie was right and he wasn't the one, even though he was right about everything –well, everything but Spike– she did love him. "I love you too."

"I know." He gave her hand one last squeeze before standing to his feet and letting it fall.

"Goodbye," she said, because he'd asked her too, and because goodbyes were important.

"Goodbye," he replied, that sad, but somehow accepting, smile still in place.

And then he was gone and Buffy was left feeling . . . feeling . . .

She wasn't sure how she felt actually. It wasn't exactly numb, but it wasn't the heart wrenching agony she'd come to expect from a breakup either. She felt . . . fine. A little sad, yes; she would miss him, but she was okay.

Was this what they called an amicable split?

She didn't know what to do now. The last time she'd had a breakup she and Willow and Dawn had eaten ice cream, watched movies, talked about how Parker was a meanie-head and a poop as they walked down the quad. Not that Parker really qualified as a breakup. And Dawn hadn't really been there, so it was probably just her and Willow. The time before that there'd been lots of crying and hugging and wishing she could change things.

She didn't need to do any of those things this time.

She didn't think the others would understand. Xander, in particular, was not going to be happy. He'd liked having another guy in the group again.

That ruled out going back to the Magic Box. Although her friends were going to have to find out sometime. It would be a little obvious when Riley stopped showing up for Scooby meetings and his apartment turned up empty. Still, sometime didn't have to be now. She couldn't handle now.

She should go home. She was supposed to check in on mom, and no one was going to blame her for sharing something this big with her twin first. That's what twins did. Hopefully they'd all understand that she still saw Dawn that way, even if she hadn't always been there like they'd thought. And if they didn't they were going to have a serious talk.

Besides, Dawn was the only one who would understand.

Mom was sleeping when she got home. Dawn peeked out from down the hall.

"Has she been sleeping this whole time?" Buffy asked, a little worried. Was she supposed to sleep this much? It was better than her burning empty frying pans on the stove, but did it mean the tumor was worse than they thought?

Dawn shook her head, leaning in the doorframe with her hands in her pockets. "She was up when I first got home. Reading. But then she got another headache so I gave her some pills and she decided to take a nap."

Buffy nearly sagged in relief. No worse than usual then. Not that that was good, but they already knew it wasn't good. God, she wished they'd hurry up and get this surgery over with already. Three more days.

"Are you okay?" Dawn asked.

"Hmm?" Buffy tore her gaze from her mom to look at her sister. "Yeah, I'm fine. I was just worried she—oh, you're not talking about the mom thing."

"What did he want?"

"To tell me he's leaving town."

Dawn's eyes searched hers. "And – you're okay with that?"

Buffy sighed. "Surprisingly, yes. I'm actually more surprised that Riley was okay with it. He's been so . . . angry lately."

Dawn shrugged, the action oddly stilted against the frame of the door. "Maybe you both realized it was time."

"Maybe. But I only even figured out what our problem was because you kept pushing me to—" Buffy stopped, studying her sister critically. Dawn didn't flinch, but she didn't look confused either, which was enough to convince Buffy her hunch was right. "You talked to him, didn't you?"

Dawn nodded. "Are you mad?"

"Mad?" Why would she be mad? Apparently Dawn had done her a major favor. This breakup could have gone so badly. Riley was in love with her. Men in love did dangerous things, stupid things, especially when they were hurting.

Buffy moved across the hall and hugged her sister tightly.

"Is that a no?" Dawn asked.

Buffy just hugged her a little closer, carefully – she didn't want to damage her sister. "Thank you," she murmured into Dawn's shoulder. And if the monks made Dawn from her, why the heck was she so tall?

Dawn squeezed her back. "I'm just glad you're okay."

Buffy pulled back with a smile. "You're the best sister ever, you know that?"

Dawn grinned. "Of course. You want chocolate?"

She wasn't heartbroken, but a little chocolate never hurt a girl. "Do I ever not want chocolate?"

"Come on." Dawn took her hand and pulled her inside the bedroom. "Just a second."

Buffy watched as her sister practically disappeared into the chest at the foot of her bed. She emerged a minute or so later holding a bag of assorted candy bars aloft triumphantly. She settled onto the bed and patted the spot beside her. Buffy sat and they both pulled their legs up Indian style while Dawn divvied up her stash.

"Not as good as ice cream, but it'll do."

For a few minutes they ate in silence, and then Dawn cleared her throat.

"So, uh, I know you said you're okay, but . . . do you want to talk about it?"

Buffy considered the offer. There wasn't really much to talk about. "We wanted different things, I think. Or, maybe needed is a better word. I couldn't be what he needed. And I don't think he could be what I needed either."

"Too normal?" Dawn asked around a bite of chocolate.

"I don't know. I guess. I thought I wanted normal, but I was always worrying about him, that he'd get hurt. Mostly though I think it's that he never really understood what I am. Who I am. I'm not sure he could."

Dawn nodded sagely. "Yeah, well, it is a little hard to wrap your head around all this mystical, supernatural, destiny crap."

Buffy poked her sister in the side. "Speaking of mystical, supernatural, destiny crap – when were you gonna tell me about your little magic experiment?"

Dawn winced. "I thought we were talking about your breakup."

"My breakup is the least of my worries today. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I was afraid you would stop me."

It was on the tip of Buffy's tongue to deny it, but she stopped. Magic wasn't really her thing; she wouldn't say she was uncomfortable with it, but it typically wasn't her preference. She would have made Dawn talk to Giles, and considering his reaction this afternoon he would have said no, and that would have been the end of it as far as Buffy was concerned.

"It was dangerous," Buffy said instead.

"So was sticking around while that demon was looking for me. I figured at least this way I wouldn't be putting anyone else in danger."

Buffy's heart clenched. "Hey." She grabbed Dawn's hand. "Don't do that. Don't think like that. This good of the many stuff. Your life is just as important as anyone else's."

"I know," Dawn assured her. "But I was pretty sure it would work. And even if it didn't, Spike would have stopped it before anything bad happened."

Debatable, really. Not that Buffy doubted Spike would have tried –if there was one thing she had no qualms trusting him with it was Dawn's safety, maybe mom's too– but that spell seemed like powerful stuff. She didn't know if he could have stopped it. Still, nothing had gone wrong.

"Do you feel any different?" Buffy asked.

"Not really. Relieved. But, uh, nothing mojo-y or anything. Or, un-mojo-y, I guess."

Buffy smiled. "That's good. I was worried you'd be, I don't know, lacking energy or something. The key was energy, right?"

"Yeah. But I think when the monks made me . . . I think it was kind of separate. Mostly. Besides, Tara said there's residue or whatever. I should be fine."

Buffy stared out the window, considering the implications.

"I hope things don't get weird now," she said.

"Weird?"

"With the others. I mean, I get you kind of had to tell them, what with my meltdown and all – which we are still going to talk about at some point," she warned, "and I know it doesn't matter anymore. Not for their safety or yours. But I don't want them to treat you different."

"I think it'll be okay," Dawn said.

"Giles was different." She'd hated that. The way Giles looked at Dawn like he didn't know whether he should be scared of her or studying her.

"At first." Dawn conceded with a shrug. "He's gotten better."

They turned back to their candy again. There wasn't really much point in Buffy worrying about it. If Dawn wasn't going to, that was. Her friends would make their own choices, they always had. Which was funny, because everyone seemed to think her life should be run by committee. She thought again about how they would react to the breakup and winced. Yeah, she should probably be worried more about how her friends would be treating her in the near future than about how they'd treat Dawn.

"So, does this mean no more babysitting?" There was a look of pleading in Dawn's eyes, and Buffy couldn't resist teasing her.

"What? I thought you liked spending extra time with your twin and your best friend."

Dawn leveled her a look. "Not when they're strung so tight the wind has them shoving me under the bed."

"That only happened once!" Buffy protested, feeling a hot flush creep into her cheeks. Note to self: no teasing the sister.

"I'm serious, Buffy. Tara said it's safe. So we can go back to normal, right? Because I'd really like to pee without a guard at the door."

Buffy reached out to ruffle her hair. "Yeah. I know. I was actually thinking the same thing. I really need to get back to my regular patrol schedule. Maybe once I'm back out there every night I'll be able to track down our mystery demon."

"What about Spike?"

"I was thinking he might patrol with me, actually."

Dawn lit up like a Christmas tree and Buffy hastened to clarify.

"It doesn't mean anything, Dawnie, except that he's strong enough to actually be useful, and I know he wants to get this bitch as much as I do." No matter how much she wasn't thinking about why. Hmmm. Maybe she shouldn't tell him the whole story on this de-keying thing, although he'd helped Dawn with the spell so he was going to wonder. But maybe she could make something up about the auras and whatever that would explain why they didn't need to guard Dawn every moment of the day, but she was still in danger.

"You should go talk to him tonight," Dawn said. "I can take care of mom. And you can let him know the spell worked. You should probably tell him about mom too. He's probably worn a hole in the floor of the crypt."

Well, there went that idea. She might be able to lie to Spike, but she couldn't lie to her sister. And she really should let him know about mom's surgery. For whatever reason he and her mother got along really well. And, for the record, it was so not fair that mom liked Dawn's vampire-whatever, when she'd hated Angel.

"Yeah, okay," she agreed.

She really hadn't planned on going to see Spike right away. He'd be stopping by tomorrow night to watch Dawn, so she was just going to ask him then, but Dawn seemed eager to get her out of the house. Buffy couldn't blame her, this would be her first chance for true freedom in almost a month. She didn't suppose it would hurt to talk to Spike tonight. Though if she was going to catch him before patrol she'd have to hurry. Stupid vampire had the worst habit of slipping out a few minutes before sunset, as if he wasn't completely flammable. And why did vampires catch on fire so quickly anyway? That whole sunlight allergy thing had didn't make much sense.

"You're okay to take care of mom?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Uh, yeah. I think I can handle our sleeping mother."

Okay, so she totally deserved that look. Dawn knew more about mom's condition than she did.

"So, you'll go?" Dawn asked.

Buffy unwrapped a tiny Kit Kat bar and made a show of thinking the idea over. She popped the candy in her mouth. "After I finish my chocolate."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Spike took another pace around the upper floor of the crypt. He sat down in the arm chair. Stood back up. Sat again.

Where was that girl? Wasn't like she had a sunlight allergy. Been twenty four hours since he'd left her at the hospital anyway. She had to know something.

Maybe it was bad? Maybe that's why she hadn't come. Except she had his mobile number.

Why didn't she call?

He sat down and scrubbed his hands over his face. He needed to calm down. Probably was nothing. Least, nothing with Joyce. She was strong, she'd be fine. Could be all sorts of reasons Bit hadn't yet called or stopped by.

He pulled out a fag, lit it, let the soothing nicotine calm his nerves.

Coulda been some Scooby crisis, he supposed. They wouldn't have called him in the daytime. Or she could be avoiding him again. Maybe she thought he was still angry about the spell and the way it'd gone wonky. Or maybe it was something else. Something to do with that board on the wall in her old flat, and her plans to change the future.

Come to think on it, he hadn't really had time to sort it all out, what with that barmy spell and all, but she was being right strange of late. Not that she wasn't always strange, but she was being stranger than usual. Kinda squirrely. More evasive than she'd been in a long time. He'd bet his last fag it had something to do with those big changes she was talking about. The de-keying couldn't be the only thing she was planning. Somehow he didn't think they were done with the hellbitch. Had a feeling she was going to get right nasty once she discovered her key was gone. So, yeah, Bit had to have some other plan, and the fact that she wasn't sharing frightened him.

He took another drag, then stomped out his cig and lit another.

Nearly sunset now. Was his night to patrol, but maybe he'd stop by the Summers' house first. Demand some answers.

He had just sat down to pull on his boots when the crypt door slammed open.

Bloody hell, didn't any of these white hats knock?

Then he saw who it was.

He'd never really had much interaction with the Slayer's current. But he knew the wanker knew what he was, even if he didn't quite realize the full of what that meant. He also knew he'd never told the git where he lived. Didn't think the Slayer had either.

He growled.

Didn't like this one knowing where he slept. Could take the boy out of the army but, well, everyone knew how the saying went.

The butt of his cig started to smolder against his fingers and he dropped it to the floor to stomp it out. The overgrown hall monitor watched him.

"What do you want?" he snarled. Part of him wanted to get to his feet, but he didn't want the boy to think he was afraid. He wasn't. He was pissed.

"You need to stay away from her."

Spike blinked. "Dawn?" he asked, confused why the git even cared. Did the Slayer finally tell him the truth? Was he afraid Spike would turn her over to the hellbitch?

"Don't play stupid with me, Spike. You may have the others fooled, but I know what's going on with you. Buffy doesn't need you."

Well, well. Seemed like not all the Slayer's friends were deaf, dumb, and blind. Didn't know how, but Captain Cardboard had managed to figure him out. Had to be a jealous boyfriend thing, but even so Spike was a little bit impressed.

Still, he wasn't going to let on the other man was right.

He stood, swaggered confidently past the ex-soldier and his tightly grasped stake, and over to the fridge. Had a bottle of something in here somewhere. Ah, there it was. Behind Bit's cola. Spike pulled out the bottle and tugged on the cork. He took a long swig.

"Not sayin' you're right," he said when he had swallowed. "But what makes you think I'm hot for your honey?"

He could practically hear the git's teeth grind, but the boy didn't move. Smarter than he looked then. Spike returned to his seat, alcohol firmly in hand. This was going to be one of those conversations.

"Because you are."

Spike conceded with a dip of the head and a quick flex of his brow. Ah hell, why not? "Well, yeah. But that's not your problem." Because this had to be about a problem. If all was well the boy wonder wouldn't be over here bandying about worthless threats. Must be trouble in paradise. "Even if I wasn't in the picture, you're never gonna be able to hold onto her."

To his surprise, there was no contradiction of his statement.

Curious, he pressed on. "You're not the long haul guy and you know it. The girl needs some monster in her man – and that's not in your nature."

The boy's shoulders slumped, just a bit. He tucked the stake away. Interesting that. No threat and swagger then? Spike had expected more posturing. Boy was too stupid to know he was no match for Spike. Doubted he even realized a master vampire was any different than the fumbling fledges he staked each night. That was government training for you.

"You actually think you've got a shot with her?" Finn asked.

Oh, so this was going to be a civil conversation now? Spike took another hit off the bottle. Would wonders never cease? He didn't know if this was better or worse than a confrontation. Certainly less satisfying, but also less likely to get his arse handed to him by the Slayer.

"No, I don't." Yes, he did. Someday. If Bit was to be believed. But that was a long, long way off. "Fella's gotta try though. Gotta do what he can."

The boy, Riley, looked torn. Spike took pity and tossed him the bottle. Had to be hell to have the girl of your dreams in your grasp and know you weren't what she wanted. To be that close to her and not have her. To be all alone even when you were holding her.

Riley took a swig and hen tossed it back. He moved around the living room set and slumped into the second chair.

"Sometimes I envy you so much it chokes me," he said.

Spike sputtered as he near-choked on his next swallow. He wiped his mouth with his forearm. "Sorry, what?"

"She doesn't know it yet, but she wants it. What you have. That little bit of monster you were talking about." He looked up and pinned Spike with a glare. "Don't go getting ideas. You're still all wrong for her."

Spike snorted.

Riley's face fell back into that distant look of resignation. "But she's not thinking about that yet. I hope she never does."

Spike shifted, suddenly uncomfortable with where this was headed. Why was Captain Cardboard here anyway? They weren't pals. And, though he kept insinuating a threat was coming, he'd yet to follow through. "Oi, what is this?"

Riley sighed and stuck out his hand. Spike stretched to give him the bottle. "I'm leaving." Riley said, when he finished his swig.

Spike nearly dropped the bottle as they were passing it back. "Sorry? What was that?"

"I'm leaving. Buffy doesn't need me. She never has."

For a moment the world seemed to stop. Then an incredulous sort of excitement crept in. God, he hated this wanker. Hated the way Angelus had twisted Buffy around until she thought this was what she wanted, what she needed. It was a long way from a sign, but maybe with this git out of the way, Buffy would start to realize she would never be happy with normal.

And then his unbeating heart sank as he realized what this meant for Buffy. This wasn't the time for selfishness. With everything with Dawn and Mum, the last thing Buffy needed was one more thing to rock the boat, one more straw on her back. Riley might be all wrong for Buffy, but she needed him right now. At the very least needed not to add heartbreak to her already long list of struggles. Because even though she didn't really love him, she didn't seem to know that. This would crush her.

"Are you barking mad?" Spike barked, probably surprising them both. "You're gonna walk out on that girl? On perfection? Doesn't matter if you're not the one. You love her, you stay. Even if you have to stand on the sidelines and watch her with another man. Even if all you can do is help from the shadows. You stay."

Riley's mouth was hanging open. And no wonder. Spike couldn't believe what he'd said himself. Encouraging his rival to stay? Maybe he was the mad one. But that's what love did, wasn't it? Love gave without any thought of self. He was a demon, and he might not have many virtues, but he sure as hell knew how to do that.

At length, Riley shook his head. "It's done, Spike. It's over. I talked to her this afternoon. I leave for South America in an hour."

Spike was stunned. Over. Done. Was this why Bit hadn't called? Was she consoling her sister? His insides felt hollow at the thought of Buffy in pain.

Wanker.

"Why are you telling me this?" he asked, voice as dead as his body.

Riley pushed to his feet and strode to the door. "Because she needs you. Or she thinks she does. To watch her back, to look after her family." He paused, sucked in a breath, hand already on the door. "But Spike – that's all it's ever gonna be. You're not the long haul guy either. Hell, you're not even the short haul guy. You're the muscle. If you ever forget that, I've got a stake waiting with your name on it."

Spike nodded, not really listening anymore. All he could see was his girl, devastated over this wanker who'd never been good enough for her. Every part of him hurt for her. God, what was wrong with him? She was better off for this, even if she didn't realize it at first. He needed to pull himself together, start preparing for his chance.

The doorway was empty by the time he looked up again, but the berk hadn't closed the door. He didn't know how long it had been. Two minutes? Ten? The bottle of booze in his hands was warming, so maybe longer. Spike stood, limbs feeling too heavy, and went to secure the door.

He froze in shock when Buffy breezed in.

"Oh good, I caught you," she said, far too full of pep for a girl who'd just been dumped. "I wanted to talk to you a—" She stopped, suddenly seeming to notice his funk. "Hey, you okay?"

Slayer was worried about him? Spike didn't know how to respond to that, especially right now. He pushed the door closed and looked down at the booze in his hand, debating another drink. A quick glance at Buffy had him shoving it back into the fridge. He had a feeling he'd need to be sober for this conversation.

"Spike?" Buffy asked. She seemed genuinely concerned, and it warmed his dead heart.

"I'm fine. Are you?" he asked.

Buffy arched a brow. "Well, I've been better. But things are definitely a little better today than yesterday, so, yeah. I'm good."

Better today than yesterday? Was she in denial? He looked back toward the closed door. Damn it, he needed to sit down. One too many shocks for old Spike this evening.

Buffy trailed him to his chair and took a seat across from him in the very spot Finn had so recently vacated.

"Are you sure you're okay?" she asked.

Spike nodded woodenly.

Buffy didn't look convinced. She frowned. "Um, okay. Well, I wanted to tell you that they scheduled mom for surgery. It's in a few days. It's cancer, but they think they'll be able to get everything."

Oh God, Joyce. He'd been so busy thinking on what that fool, Finn, had said, he'd forgotten he was waiting for news. It was good news and bad news, Spike supposed, though it did set his mind a bit more at ease that the doctors were so confident. He couldn't be sure –not like he had to deal with physical illness– but it seemed with cancer the doctors always erred on the side of caution rather than optimism. And Joyce was a fighter, she'd pull through. Not that it was going to matter in the long run. Jus' countin' the days 'til they lost her.

"Also, Dawn wanted me to tell you that the spell worked, so you can stop being mad at her."

That got his attention. "It worked?" he asked, fingers digging into the arms of the chair. He forced himself to relax before he did any lasting damage to it. He might be able to afford new furniture, but he didn't want to have to explain to the Slayer how he'd got it.

"Yep, we tested it and everything. Tara and Willow said it's all good."

Spike slouched in relief. Thank God. Supposed he could see how today was a better day than yesterday then.

"So," Buffy twisted her fingers, a tell tale sign of nerves even if her heartbeat and breathing were still fairly steady. "Uh, you don't need to come baby-sit Dawn tomorrow night."

"Oh. Right." Spike felt something within him deflate a bit. Bollocks. Were things going to go back to the way they were before then? Him on the periphery, stepping in only to help when the Big Bad reared her badly-permed head? He knew Buffy'd been struggling with their truce ever since she learned the truth of the monk's spell, and he didn't suppose he blamed her. She didn't have two sets of memories knocking about in her head. Had no way of knowing what was real and what wasn't. But she'd let him stay with Dawn, and he'd done his best to prove himself worthy of her trust.

"So . . . I was thinking," she paused awkwardly, suddenly unable to look him in the eye, "uh . . . do you want to patrol. With me? I mean, like, together."

He looked up at her in shock and she flushed as she stumbled on.

"It's just, that blond bitch is still out there. And she's super strong. And we have a better chance together. So I thought maybe—"

"Yes," he cut her off. God yes. And maybe he sounded a little eager but, God, she was asking him to spend time with her. Just the two of them. There was no universe in which he was going to let that slip away.

She paused and for a moment he thought he'd overplayed his hand, but then she smiled. It was a little uncomfortable, maybe even nervous, but it was real, relieved even. Had she thought he'd say no? Probably.

"Oh, good. Because, uh, my other patrolling partner isn't going to be around anymore."

His thoughts, fantasies really, were threatening to run away with him again, but that stopped him cold. Not in denial then.

"'S true, then?" he asked.

Her eyes widened. "Did Dawn call you?"

He shook his head. "No, I uh. Well, it's not important. Let's jus' say I ran into your—uh, to Finn today." She seemed to be alright, but calling Finn "her boy" right now was probably not the best way to keep her that way. Not that the thought of holding her while she cried wasn't a bit appealing. Done that twice in recent memory, and even the pain of knowing she was hurting couldn't stop the rush of pleasure having her in his arms brought.

He could see the statement confused her, but she didn't say anything about it. Instead she shook her head. "Anyway, I also wanted to thank you for helping Dawn. And for your help the last month." Clearly she had nothing more to say, and she looked around the crypt awkwardly. "So do you want to come with me? Now?"

She winced a little, though it seemed more from embarrassment than anything else. Today had been harder on her than she knew, he'd wager. Not that she didn't babble on the best of days, but it was clear her mouth and her brain were not quite in sync at the moment. Or maybe she was as flummoxed by asking him to spend time with her as he was at hearing it. Wouldn't kid himself by thinking it was for the same reason.

"For patrol, I mean."

This time he managed to be more casual with his acceptance, maybe because he had more warning. "Sure, let me get my boots and coat."

Her eyes dropped to stare at his bare feet as though she'd never realized he had them. Feet that was. Did she think the boots were soldered on?

He shook his head. Now that he wasn't so busy worrying about, well, everything, and he was feeling more himself, amusement was starting to creep in. She was bloody adorable. He had to bite back a giggle. Alright, maybe it was more than amusement, maybe he was a bit giddy. Have to sort that before he got back to her. Couldn't spend the next few hours grinning at her like a fool. She wasn't ready for that.

Still, for the first time he had actual hope. She trusted him. Really trusted him. Even if she wasn't quite ready to admit it. Was asking for his help. Not for the Bit, but for her. Between that and Captain Cardboard's warnings, well, it seemed he might actually have a chance – and sooner than Bit thought. Not that he was going to be getting ahead of himself. Promised Bit he wouldn't. Besides, even if Buffy'd never really loved that berk, Finn –and didn't seem all too upset for just having broken up– it'd be insensitive to pursue her so soon after the breakup.

Spike had one hundred and twenty years of carefully learned self control. Not that he always chose to use it, but he'd learned to suss when it was necessary. It was what had kept him alive so long. And he was going to have to call on every ounce of it tonight. Starting with tamping down on this bloody giddy feeling. Best way to manage that was to focus on all the problems still at hand. He pulled on his boots, still sitting next to the chair where he'd abandoned them when Finn came in, then stood to search for his duster. As he forced his mind to other things, something occurred to him.

"Oi," he called as he came back with his coat. "Why didn't Bit jus' call me?" Buffy's eyes widened and he realized she thought he was talking about that wanker, Finn, again. "About the spell," he clarified.

Her stiff form relaxed a bit. "I don't know. I think because I was coming over for patrol, maybe?"

Spike frowned. That didn't sound like the Bit. No reason the two of them couldn't have come together. No question, she was avoiding him. And not because of the spell. If it worked there was no reason for her to think he'd still be angry. Had to be something else. She was definitely hiding something and he was going to find out what.

"Is something wrong?" Buffy asked.

Spike gave himself a mental shake and sat down to pull on his shoes. "Naw. She's prob'ly so excited she forgot she had my mobile. And you've still got Mum to think about, right?" He smiled up at her, an eager, toothy grin. "Now, what say we go kill things, Slayer? Do believe there's a hellbitch jus' waiting for a good clobbering."

For once she didn't seem put off by his love of violence. Instead she nodded sternly, all slayer in less than a breath. It was a beautiful thing to see. "I've got a boot with her name on it," she promised.

Spike followed her out into the night. Looked like he might spend the next few hours grinning like a fool after all.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Chapter End Notes:

So - I got you all a Buffy/Riley breakup for Christmas - hope you liked it. For those who are wondering, no, there were no vamp-whores for Riley in my head-canon for this story. Thanks to Dawn's gentle intervention things never got that bad. It was interesting reading the comments after the last few chapters. Some people hate Riley, some people feel sorry for him. Some people blame him, others blame Buffy. I personally think they were both in the wrong. Riley got very needy at a very bad time, but Buffy wasn't treating him right. As for the Riley craziness - I blame that on the writers. None of the characters in Buffy ever had any consistency or realistic motivations. I try not to judge the characters for the writers' lack of skill. That's just my personal opinion though.

I don't know if I included this last chapter, but part III first draft is officially complete. I'll be editing it a few times, but since it's pretty much ready to go I will be trying to update at least weekly, barring any craziness in my life. I might also get back to EOM oneshots, since I have several in progress on my flash drive.

Thanks for reading, and review if you've got a moment.

reenasas