In The Space Between

"I don't really expect you to understand," Illyria added in a softer tone, turning to face the vampire. "But you are needed more by her than by myself at the moment, and I am a generous and just god. If I have need of you, I will find you. In the meantime, my plans are best served by remaining without you. Your connections to the Slayer are too well known. Any known affiliation between yourself and I is unnecessary and may interfere with my research." She nodded stiffly, "Goodbye, vampire, at least for now."

Chapter 15: These Twisted Games We're Playing

Buffy watched her sister literally cling to her mother as the three of them made pancakes on Saturday morning. "Can we do smiley faces?" Dawn inquired, her expression one of earnest and relieved joy.

"Of course," their mother replied. Her voice was light and bemused. Buffy didn't think that her mother had ever spent so much uninterrupted time with her daughters since they were children. She didn't think she had ever seen her mother this happy in years either though.

Buffy smiled, walking over to her sister and gently placing an elbow on Dawn's shoulder, feigning propping herself up. "What about what I want?" she demanded playfully. "What if I want… squiggly worms?"

Dawn stuck her tongue out in response as Joyce laughed – a clear and pain-free sound that almost brought tears to Buffy's eyes. "Oh, do you remember," she began, her maternal smile shining on her daughters, "When Dawn first came up with that one?"

Dawn pouted, "Mom! I was like.. three."

Buffy nodded, "Exactly. You were adorable back then." She raised an eyebrow, looking Dawn up and down critically, "What happened?"

Dawn stuck her tongue out again at her sister. Buffy decided to respond with the same childish gesture.

The phone ringing interrupted their antics, and Buffy watched her mother shake her head slightly as she answered the phone. "Oh, yes, hello Willow," her mother said, "Yes, I'm feeling quite fantastic. All the quality mother-daughter time is wonderful." She paused, a bemused expression on her lips. "No, Buffy hasn't been doing patrols – Spike has been covering them for her so we could spend more time together." She raised an eyebrow at whatever Willow said next, directing a look at Buffy that seemed strangely knowing.

"What?" Buffy sputtered. "What is she saying?"

Her mother smiled. "Yes," she replied into the receiver, "I think I probably could spare her for one evening." She handed the phone over to Buffy, "Willow and Xander are organizing a night out at The Bronze. All of you deserve a break."

Buffy chewed her lip, anxiety on her features. "Hi Wills," she said into the receiver. "Yeah, I'm game," she frowned, looking at her mother. She pulled the receiver away from her face for a moment and mouthed, "Are you sure you want me to go?" Her mother rolled her eyes and nodded vigorously. "OK, sounds good. I'll see you guys at 8 then." She hung up the phone, pausing for a moment.

"Are you sure you don't mind?" she finally said, despite herself.

"Buffy!" her mother replied in consternation. "I love all of the attention, I really do, but you can't spend all of your time with your old mother. You deserve to go have some fun with your friends."

Buffy looked hesitant, but finally relented. It had been an awfully long time since she had gone out and simply had some fun with her friends.

Eight o'clock rolled around and Buffy was still humming and hawing over her decision to go out. Her eyes spoke volumes about her fears. Losing her mother was quite possibly the most terrifying thought she had ever had to face. "Don't look so glum, Slayer," Spike said softly, walking up behind her as she stared contemplatively at her reflection in the mirror. "I'll keep an eye on your mum. She looks so much as peakish, I'll come get you."

Buffy turned around to face him, "Are you sure?" she asked, her expression tense. "I feel like you've been doing so much for me… and for us lately."

He shrugged as if it were all nothing. "Don't have much else to do, do I now?" he replied. "Blue's made it pretty clear she doesn't want to be tracked. Don't exactly relate to things the way the me of this time did, so I can't exactly show up to a poker game and pretend everything is the same." He looked contemplative for a moment, "Probably would have to off a few of my old poker buddies at this point."

Buffy watched him with questioning eyes. No one had ever been there for her the way Spike had been the last few weeks. The kiss they had shared weighed heavily on her mind. He was so careful to avoid any mention of it or any similarities to the moment. But his eyes burned when they looked at her. His expression was unmistakable. She almost wished, in a strangely wistful way, that this Spike were as cocky and arrogant as the old one had been. She wouldn't mind another kiss from him. Truth to be told, there were a lot of things she wouldn't mind from him.

But like hell was she going to make a move on Spike. That whole idea was just out of the question.

"Besides," he was continuing, "Been ages since I've had any of those mini marshmallows."

"But we have plenty," Joyce finished, coming down the hall behind him. "Buffy," she reprimanded, "It's already five after eight. You're going to be late." She turned to Spike, "You, however, are more than welcome to some hot cocoa."

Buffy watched Spike's expression melt into one of utter peace. "Thank you, Joyce," he murmured, "Think I'll go help myself. Sounds like Dawn's experimenting with something in the microwave." He nodded at Joyce's suddenly stricken face, "Don't worry, doesn't sound like its exploded yet."

His disappeared down the hall like a shadow, his voice greeting Dawn and inquiring curiously about whatever she was concocting in the kitchen meandering down the hallway to Buffy's ears.

"He's been awfully good to us," Joyce observed. She looked earnestly at Buffy. "Any particular reason why?

Buffy sighed. "I… I don't know really. I mean, there's all the… everything, but…" she shrugged her arms helplessly.

Joyce stared at her for a long moment. "I'm thinking of asking him to babysit Dawn on Thursday."

"For your date?" Buffy asked, surprised.

"Well, you should get back to your patrolling and spend some time with your friends. And," Joyce smiled, "Face it. He's wonderful with her."

Buffy looked askance at her mother. "Yeah," she admitted finally, "He kinda is."

Spike watched Dawn as she animatedly stabbed mini marshmallows with toothpicks. "So," she began, her eyes focused on the marshmallows, "Then we connected them like this." A twisting tower was rapidly forming under her fingers, "Though we had, like, coloured marshmallows, to represent the different nucleotides, so you're just gonna have to imagine that they're different colours. But, like, pink always goes with blue and green always goes with yellow. So just, try to picture that." She brandished the double helix with gusto, "And voila! DNA!"

Spike smirked at her, "And what's it do?"

Dawn hesitated for a moment, "Uh… umm… we took notes on it?" she squeaked helplessly. Spike stared at her, letting his eyes convey a single idea: unimpressed. "OK, OK," she admitted, "It's, uh, something to do with cells. Like, DNA is the genetic material. So… that's like the… blueprints. So everything in the cell is programmed into the DNA. It's kinda like building plans."

Spike nodded, "Sounds ingenious."

Dawn quirked an eyebrow, "Are you seriously interested in this stuff?"

He shrugged as Joyce re-entered the kitchen. "Didn't 'xactly teach that sort of thing when I was in school, kitten. S'all news to me." He raised an eyebrow at Joyce, "So, babysitter, huh?"

Joyce nodded gracefully. "One of the doctors asked me to go to dinner with him," her cheeks flushed lightly pink as Spike smirked at her knowingly, "And Dawn would probably react better to spending time with you than Mr. Giles."

"Oh," Dawn's mouth was a perfect pink circle, "Really? Spike, would you be my babysitter? Oh please, oh please, oh please? With a cherry on top? It'll be, like, totally awesome." She stared up at him, holding her breath. "I'llevenmaybestudy," she promised in a rush of words.

Spike smiled, nodding at Joyce, "I'd love to, mum." His blue eyes sparkled with happiness. He felt at home for the first time in a very long time.

Buffy had not been at the Bronze long when she spotted Riley. "I can't believe he's still hanging around here," she spat viciously to Willow. "I don't want to see him, what part of that doesn't he get?"

Willow nibbled thoughtfully on the straw in her glass. "You'll be surprised by what he has to say," she said softly.

"Why don't you just tell me, instead?" Buffy replied cheerily.

Willow smiled weakly. "I don't think it should work like that," she stumbled a little on her words, "It's not my story to tell." She left Buffy's side then, drifting back over to Tara. The two ducked their heads together, smiling and exchanging something that caused them to both blush.

They looked happy together, Buffy mused. She was only a little jealous. And lonely. And ridiculously torn up in her feelings about their new… what? House-vampire? Spike was integrating himself into her family at a rapid pace. Pretty soon, she was certain, it'd get difficult to imagine their lives without him. And… maybe she didn't really want to. He was a comfortable presence in their lives. He took care of them. Buffy rubbed her hands across her arms. It'd been a long time since anyone had taken that particular task upon themselves.

"Hey there," a male voice announced, slipping an arm around her waist and spinning her towards the bar just behind them. "You're standing all alone, and I thought to myself, a pretty girl like that shouldn't be alone and without a drink." He smiled winningly down at her, but Buffy could smell the alcohol on his breath. His hand was hot and clammy on the small of her back.

"I'm fine, actually, thank you," she replied politely, pulling herself away slightly.

The guy looked abashed. "Listen," he leaned conspiratorially close. "It took my friends about twenty minutes to talk me into coming over to talk to you. You're…" he paused, looking her up and down in an earnest way, "Absolutely stunning. I would be honoured if you would let me buy you a drink. And then I'll leave you alone, if you still think I'm just a complete creep."

A small part of Buffy felt flattered. A larger part felt like dismissing the guy simply for not having blue eyes and a British accent. She sighed softly, "Yeah, ok," she acceded, following him up to the bar. She looked at the guy with a little sympathy, "What's your name?" she asked, even as she placed an order for Coke. No, no alcohol. Alcohol and Buffy were non-mixy things.

"Mark," the guy replied, smiling. "I don't usually go out dancing," he admitted. "It's not really my scene. I'm more of a… libraries and coffee shops kind of guy."

Buffy found herself smiling only weakly for him as he spoke. It felt just awkward. Like she was simply being polite.

"Buffy," a familiar voice said behind her, "Nice to see you with a human guy for once."

Buffy rolled her eyes, spinning on her heel even as her jaw tightened in reaction. "What do you want, Riley?" she demanded. Her eyes flashed fire.

He looked chastened, "I'm sorry," he sputtered, "I really didn't mean that…"

"Who's this guy?" Mark inquired, leaning forward as if to protect her from the poor guy with an arm in a sling. "And what the hell is he talking about?"

"Just my ex," Buffy smiled sweetly.

"Oh," Mark said, deflating slightly as he looked Riley up and down and came to the rapid conclusion that he simply could not compare. "I'll, uh, let you two sort out… your stuff… of whatever." He disappeared into the crowd before Buffy could even glance back at him.

Riley shuffled his feet a little awkwardly, "Listen, Buffy, that just came out… wrong." He ran his free hand across his forehead, rubbing his eyes in a tired way.

"I dunno," Buffy sneered. "Sounds like it came out just the way you intended it to."

"Hey, I'm not the only one who decides who gets to live or die on a daily basis!" Riley exploded suddenly. "You do the exact same thing every time you go on patrol. You decide who's living and who's dying. And to be honest, I don't see all that many living."

Buffy stared at Riley with undisguised shock. "You… you came here to lecture me about going easier on demons?" She stared at him in disbelief. "You killed Spike and now you want to lecture me on going easier on demons?"

"Yeah well, old habits die hard," Riley looked thoroughly defeated. "Listen, can't we just talk for a minute? I know, I've been stupid but… I saw some things with the military. And I can't, I can't un-see them."

Buffy stared at Riley for a long moment. She sighed and tightened her grip on the glass of pop she clutched in her hands. The condensation on the glass sent icy rivulets down her hand. Willow's words echoed in her head. "OK, lets go somewhere we can talk then," she said softly, caving to Willow's usually better judgment.

He ended up taking her out of the club and down the street to a nearby late-night coffee shop. The atmosphere of defeat still clung to him, which was probably the only reason Buffy agreed to follow and let his hand fall on her elbow to guide her into the shop. The warm clamminess of his palm felt sticky on her skin, and she felt like doing nothing more than shrugging his hand off of her. But she demurred. Whatever it was he needed to talk about had brought a somewhat sickly sheen to his still-healing face. The face she'd broken. Guilt was winning the war. Guilt and Willow's suggestions that she just listen.

"OK, so spill," Buffy said finally, as they waited for the waitress to bring their coffee. "What is it that you can't un-see?"

Riley took a moment to gather himself, his Adam's apple bobbing for a moment. "The military, they sent me to the Amazon. And you know how they're always saying about the uncontacted tribes that live there?" Buffy nodded in response. "Yeah, well, they aren't all human."

Buffy nodded again, unsurprised. It was well known that several types of demon gathered into groups to live and hunt and be evil. And why would the military send people there if there weren't demons?

"And they aren't all evil," Riley added, his voice thick with emotion. Buffy's eyes flew up to meet his. "They… some of them went there to live in peace, away from humans. They… they have… families. And… children. And they… we… Buffy, we murder them. They aren't hurting anyone or doing anything evil. No evil spirits or demonic worship or plots being planned. Just… normal people, trying to live their lives without…" Buffy watched Riley collapse in on himself. He was trembling.

Instinctively, Buffy reached out a hand to touch his shoulder. "What are you saying?" she murmured softly, her voice already carrying the dread.

Riley raised his head and stared straight into her eyes, a numb emptiness gazing at her through eyes she had once loved. "They made me shoot children, Buffy. The only thing that made them different from humans was that they were green and had spines. Retractable spines. They… they were… good. Good people. They had… a whole community going. They worked together and they shared stuff and the children were happy. And then we landed and we got our orders." His voice was hoarse, "Shoot. No survivors." He stared once more at his hands. "They weren't hurting anyone. They'd gone into the jungle so that they could be undisturbed, and so that people didn't need to accept their existence. And we went in… and we killed them… for no reason."

Buffy felt her throat close up. The idea of good demons traveled into her brain and cemented itself alongside the ideas she had been forming over the last few weeks. Good people can do bad things. Bad people can do good things. Souls don't count for much. Demons can be good. The sum of the parts was becoming something greater than she could comprehend. Good? Evil? Did they even really mean anything at all? Maybe only actions could be classified as good or evil. Maybe people just… were. The thought ate at her belly.

She leaned forward across the table and nudged Riley's downcast head with a free hand. "Thank you for telling me," she whispered. "Things are… I think they're starting to make sense. Somehow. This is another piece of the puzzle I'm trying to solve." She swallowed hard. "Thank you," she whispered again, letting her lips brush across his forehead.

In the second it took for Riley to realize what had happened, she was gone. She had done what she always did best when they were together, disappeared. She was an enigma or an untouchable mystery. Maybe that was what she always had been to him. The fleeting brush of her lips against his forehead lingered like a benediction.

Riley left Sunnydale that night. He never looked back, and he never returned. But when he thought about the Slayer, and the strange world of demons that he had once been part of with her, he smiled. Because something in her eyes told him that everything was about to change, and he had been a small part of that change. A change for the better.