Title: Miss Perfect

Author: HonorH

Rating: R for a little sex

Spoilers: up to "As You Were"

Pairings: B/S, B/R, Sam/Riley, and even a touch of B/A

Summary: Buffy and Sam size each other up during "As You Were."

Disclaimers: Nobody here is mine, but I'd take Graham off ME's hands in a second.

Feedback: to ksheasley@yahoo.com or review at FanFiction.net. Kindly do not use my reviews section to bash Riley, however. If you absolutely can't stand to see Riley portrayed in a positive light, you might like to leave now.

Note I: Sam, people complain, is just "too perfect." So I decided to take another look and see what's going on under that perfect hair. She surprised me. Then Buffy decided to chime in, and lo and behold, alternating POVs. A favor, though: somebody please stop me before I turn into one of those people who has to write something after every freakin' episode!

Note II: Thanks muchly to Gyrus and Aurora for beta-reading this for me!

***

Sam

Meeting your husband's ex-girlfriend is enough to make any woman nervous, but add in the fact that she's also 1) his first love, and 2) perfect, and you'll find yourself turning into a quivering mass of insecurities.

"If we're headed into Sunnydale, she's the best person to have on our side," Riley told me.

"Of course," I said. Yeah, I could see that. After all, she's the Slayer, the one girl in all the world with the strength and skill to combat the forces of evil. She'd be the perfect one to help us out with our little problem. There's that word again, perfect.

Way back when Riley and I were just starting our relationship, I went to wrestle some information out of Graham. "Wrestle" in this case is none too figurative; I had to get him into a hammerlock before he'd cough up. In the end, I wished I hadn't bothered.

"She could kick all our asses without breathing hard," Graham told me. "She'd killed more demons by the time she was eighteen than most of us will in our entire careers."

"But what was she like?" I insisted on asking.

Graham shrugged. "Small. Blond. Cute. Riley got a lot of 'you lucky dog' comments when they started going out."

The small, blond, and cute thing was something I'd already gotten from Riley. Not too reassuring to the girl who went through adolescence towering over ninety percent of the boys in her school like a skinny, brown-haired tree.

"What was she like personality-wise?" I asked, figuring that with Graham, I needed to be specific.

He thought about it. "Pretty determined. I mean, if she wanted something dead, it was only a matter of time. She could take twice as much damage as the rest of us before she'd even start to slow down. After hours, though, she was kinda . . . perky. Sweet. I liked her. She was Good People."

Add that to all Riley's "she was amazings," and count me one intimidated woman. We're headed to Sunnydale now, chasing a demon and the Slayer. A mystical warrior who was my husband's first love.

I can handle this. No, really.

***

Buffy

I've discovered something: no matter how bad your life sucks, it can be made even suckier by the entrance of your ex-boyfriend.

I can't believe Riley's here. One minute, I'm at the counter of the Doublemeat Palace contemplating the overall patheticness of my life, and the next minute, I'm leaving with the man I had a year-long affair with, who walked out of my life just when I was starting to understand what he meant to me. And he would have to show up at just this moment, with me smelling like grease and wearing the oh-so-flattering DP uniform, complete with its trademark nightmare chicken-cow hat.

I'm only too happy to change when we're in his big old Military Man-mobile chasing down a demon and making small talk. It's better than discussing all that's happened in the year since he left, and way better than trying to hash out the slow-motion train wreck that was the end of our relationship. At least he likes my hair.

Of course the demon would hole up in a culvert, which would mean that Riley and I would have to buddy up to descend on his James Bond equipment. Anything to make the situation even more uncomfortable. I hang onto him as he lowers us into the ravine. I can smell him, and he's so familiar, even after all this time, so warm and alive . . .

Okay, Buff, let's not go there. Focus. Demon, remember?

And there it is. Fighting the thing lets us blow off some steam, which has been building through the whole car ride. It's tough, giving us both a hard time, but we manage to knock it flat. A pause for breath, and suddenly, Riley's in front of me, his blue-green eyes staring into mine, and all those old emotions just come flooding back. In that moment, I wonder: Is there a chance?

Enter tall, gorgeous brunette. She gives me an amused look and says, "What are you doing with my husband?"

The first thing that goes through my head is that she's joking, she's just one of Riley's buddies, determined to embarrass him in front of his old girlfriend. But then I see Riley's face.

Oh, God. He's married.

***

Sam

Nice move, stupid. And I mean that for both me and Riley.

I've thought about this moment a hundred times since I learned we'd be seeing Buffy. Had it all planned out, in my ever-optimistic way. I'd waltz in, impress her with my demon-fighting skills, make a clever quip or two to diffuse the tension, and she and I would end up giggling about Riley's quirks over hot fudge sundaes.

Well, I made my clever little quip, but Buffy's not laughing. She's staring wide-eyed with shock at Riley, and all of a sudden, I realize he hasn't told her yet. She had no idea he was married until I walked up and dropped the bomb.

Riley makes a hasty, very belated introduction, and I do my best to be smooth about it. Buffy looks at me fully for the first time.

"Cute" doesn't do her justice. She's delicate-looking, almost elfin with those huge green eyes. Delicate and beautiful, the kind of girl you can't quite believe is real when you first see her. And this is the Slayer.

I'm saved from even more awkwardness when the demon revives. Well, my plan might not be a total waste. Time to impress her with my fighting skills.

Scratch Plan B. I do okay for a little while, but then Riley has to come to my rescue. Then Buffy has to come to our rescue. I can't even imagine the sort of power wrapped up in that tiny little form of hers that allows her to break the demon's neck like a stalk of celery.

That, of course, leaves us here: me, sweaty, smelly, and sleep-deprived, staring down my husband's beautiful ex-girlfriend (who just killed a demon with her bare hands), whom my doofus of a man neglected to tell not only of our marriage, but the mission objective as well.

Don't ask how this could get worse. Please.

***

Buffy

If anyone asks how this could possibly get worse, I'll have to kill them.

Riley's married. Married. Married! To a tall, gorgeous, ass-kicking demon fighter. And I just screwed up their mission. Granted, that's not exactly my fault. Somehow, though, seeing Sam chew Riley out isn't nearly as satisfying as it should be.

Sam. Nice, practical name. Probably short for Samantha. She probably thinks "Buffy" is the weirdest name ever. It's not like it's my fault.

She's helping him up now, checking him over for injuries, just like I used to. He's telling her he's okay, just like he used to tell me. Something twists a little inside me. Sam. Nice, practical Sam. Probably just what he needed after me.

We have to ride up the James Bond stuff to get back to the top of the culvert, and again, I'm with Riley. This time, I keep my brain firmly off the parts of me that are up against Riley's parts. Sam's totally cool with it, too, or at least putting up a nice front. She's either a very secure person, or I just don't look like much of a threat. Don't think I'll follow that line of thought anymore. We all pile into Riley's hurking big car, with Sam insisting I sit up front with Riley so we can talk on the way to my place.

At least Angel had the decency to be a jerk to Riley.

Riley hands me a cell phone so I can call the homestead and let them know the Marines are about to land. Or the Army, or whatever branch of the military was responsible for the Initiative. I get Dawn on the phone first.

"Hey, Buff. You get held up at the Doublemeat Dungeon?" my darling little sis asks.

"Not exactly," I say. "I'm headed home right now, and . . . Riley's here."

"What?!" Dawn's voice goes up an octave. "Riley? As in Agent Finn, who ran off into the night without even saying goodbye?"

This is just getting better and better. "As in. Could I talk to Willow, please?"

"Does he have some sort of demony disease?" Dawn asks, and she's way too cheerful about the idea. "Acid scars on his face? Is he crippled? Missing hands and feet?"

"Willow, please," I repeat. Dawn lets go with a grumble and yells for Willow, filling her in on Riley's return so loudly I know Riley can hear it. I don't even look at him.

"Buffy? Riley's back?" Willow asks.

I give her a very, very short rundown on the sitch and ask her to call Xander. She says she will, then returns to the subject of Riley.

"He's fine," I tell her. "Say 'hi,' Riley." I hold out the phone, and Riley obligingly says, "Hi." "He's here, and, um, sort of married."

"Huh?"

"He's married."

"Huh?"

"Riley has a wife. Who he's married to. Named Sam."

"Riley's married?"

Now I hear Dawn in the background again, shrieking, "What?!?" All hell breaks loose then, with Willow and Dawn both talking and wrestling for the phone. The last thing that comes through clearly is Dawn's, "Is she a total ho-biscuit?" before I start with the yelling.

"Willow, call Xander! Dawn, hyper down! And try to clean up some of the crap in the living room! We'll be there in fifteen." I click off, coming to the realization that this evening just isn't going to improve.

***

Sam

I know some of the names from stories Riley's told. Willow is Buffy's best friend, a witch (a Wicca practitioner, to be precise), and in love with a woman named Tara. Xander is another friend, a construction worker, and in love with a former demon named Anya. Riley liked both Willow and Xander immensely. Dawn is Buffy's little sister, who reminds Riley strongly of Briana, the younger of his own two sisters.

I know their names and what they meant to Riley. Now I'm going to meet them. And they're going to look at me as the woman Riley rebounded to after he left Buffy. My palms are all sweaty, and I wipe them as discreetly as possible, glad that Buffy's distracted.

"So how's your mom doing?" Riley asks conversationally.

Buffy freezes. It takes her a long time to get her next words out. "She's dead, Riley."

Riley almost runs the car off the road at that. He corrects swiftly and looks over at Buffy, shocked. "But she was doing so well when I . . ." He trails off.

Buffy looks down, her face infinitely sad. "There were complications later. An aneurysm. She just . . . died."

Riley's jaw tightens. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I wish I could have been there to help somehow."

"It's okay," Buffy says with false bravado. "I had people. Giles. Xander. Willow. Angel."

Angel. I know that name. Buffy's first love, a vampire cursed with a human soul. I got the full Angel-rant one evening when Riley was a little drunk and more than a little bitter. I see Riley's full-body flinch as Angel's name is mentioned.

Yeah, you deserved that, Finn.

"I guess I deserved that," Riley says. Good. At least he knows it.

Buffy lets him off the hook. "He was only in town for one night, right after Mom's funeral. He's got people he cares for in L.A. Responsibilities. We live in different worlds now." She looks at Riley. "Kind of like you and me."

"Yeah," says Riley, giving her a sad glance. "Like us." There are a few more minutes of silence before Riley speaks again. "How's Dawn doing?"

"She's okay," says Buffy. "I've got custody of her. We've had a rough year, but things are looking up."

I almost can't believe what I'm hearing. Buffy, the Slayer, is also raising her little sister after their mother's death. How can she have all that responsibility and still keep on going?

Riley takes a deep breath and changes the subject. "Did you ever figure out what Glory wanted?"

My brain spits out more facts, like a computer. Glory: super-strong female demon of unknown origin, seeking something called "the Key."

"Um, yeah," says Buffy. "She was a god from another dimension, and she needed . . ." Buffy pauses, like this is hard for her. "She needed an energy key to get back there."

"Did she find it?" Riley asks.

"Yes."

"Was it bad?"

Buffy doesn't answer, just looks out the window. I can see her reflection in it. How can one person bear the pain I see in her face? What could have happened to make her eyes so haunted?

"Buffy," says Riley gently. She doesn't look at him. "Buffy, I'm sorry. I've got no right to pry. I'm sorry."

"It's okay," she murmurs.

But it's not.

***

Buffy

We get to my house before too much more awkward silence can commence. I can only imagine what Sam must be thinking about all this. Her husband's broody, unstable ex-girlfriend.

We enter, and Dawn's gone into full mope mode. Little sis isn't one for forgiving easily, and in spite of Riley's attempts at making nice, she gives him the full-on freeze-out.

(Good for her.)

Xander and Willow are much nicer, greeting their old friend on the assumption that if I'm okay with him, no hard feelings are warranted. Will, though, pulls me aside and offers to hate Sam for me. With Dawn handling the Riley-hatred, I think we've got all bases covered.

Just another night in hell.

***

Sam

This is fun. Really. Meeting Buffy's friends and sister. Dawn's exceptionally pretty and will likely be a beauty like her sister when she gets older, and she really does remind me of Riley's sister Briana. Right down to the disapproving glare she gives me. Only, I don't think I'll be able to win Dawn over as easily as I did Bri. After giving Riley a distinctly unfriendly greeting, Dawn stations herself protectively by her sister's side and glowers at us over Buffy's head. I take a deep breath and contemplate Willow and Xander.

Willow's just as cute as Riley always said she was, but unlike what he implied, she's not being exactly friendly. "There are no strangers to Willow," Riley once said. Except her best friend's ex-boyfriend's new wife, apparently. At least Xander's being chatty, asking for advice on his upcoming wedding. I tell him about our disposable cameras solution to the photography mess we nearly got into at our reception, and Xander seems genuinely grateful. One for my side, I guess.

My problem is that I've always been too concerned about having people like me. I know it's just my insecurity talking, but that doesn't make it any easier for me to shake the habit. "Little Miss Perfect" was my nickname growing up. I can't tell you how much I hated it, but I sure did my best to earn it. So now I find myself trying to win over Buffy's friends and family. It's stupid, but I can't stop myself.

As we talk about the demons, Riley acts like Dawn should leave. I hear myself jump in, saying she's old enough to be here. After all, she's the Slayer's sister; she's got to have heard about all this before, right? Dawn's ire seems a bit mollified by my words, and I'm feeling pretty good until I see the look on Buffy's face.

Oh, God. I'm so stupid. What if Buffy doesn't want her fifteen-year-old sister sitting in on a discussion involving multiple maimed body parts? I wouldn't, if I had a sister. But she can't exactly kick Dawn out now that I've opened my trap.

A few minutes later, I step in it again with Willow. I'm pushing her to do a spell, and it turns out she's an addict. That little fiasco leads to her angry retreat. I'll have to catch her later and tell her about the two shamans I knew who lost it; it might make her feel better and dislodge my foot from my throat.

To top matters off, Riley thinks I should patrol with Buffy. Great idea, Finn. Note to self: smother husband with pillow at earliest opportunity.

***

Buffy

Patrol with ex-boyfriend's wife. Oh, yeah. Simple. Note to self: must kill Riley Finn.

Sam tries to back out, saying she'll just slow me down. Great. She's probably thinking I'm some sort of bitch who's dreading going out on patrol with a mere mortal. I'm not that mean. I'm a nice person, who's gone out patrolling with my friends lots of times. How could she even think things like that about me?

I surprise her by agreeing to Riley's suggestion. Gotcha, Mrs. Finn.

***

Sam

Buffy, being the nice person she is, agrees to take me patrolling with her. I'm sure she just doesn't want to embarrass me by telling Riley, "No, I don't want to have your wife dragging me down if we run into trouble." I say I'm game, and we head out.

How can she look so tiny and cute in Kevlar? It's not fair. My body armor makes me all thick-waisted and big-butted, and she just looks petite and perfect. Quick, too; even with my longer legs, I can barely keep up with her. I feel big and clunky, like a hockey player beside a figure skater.

We find the perfect topic of conversation, too: how I met Riley. I tell her the basics.

Thing is, when I first met Riley, even though I thought he was the most beautiful man I'd ever laid eyes on, I wasn't attracted to him. I thought he was a brooder. He seemed to have a big chip on his shoulder, and I really didn't need a man like that in my life.

Then, one day, we were looking over a map together, and he made a corny joke. I don't even remember what it was, just that it was really bad. I was really tired at the time, downright punchy, and I started giggling helplessly. Riley looked over at me and grinned, and I saw his dimples, and I knew. I knew he was the one.

As we "courted," as Riley so charmingly puts it, he opened up to me about Buffy and their relationship. His stories painted her larger than life, someone who commanded the attention of everyone around her. I can see that, too. There's something about Buffy, an effortless charisma that draws others to her.

But I see something else, too. Her eyes have such deep pain in them. She's the Slayer, the one girl with the strength and skill to combat the forces of evil.

One girl, with the weight of the world on her shoulders.

***

Buffy

I can't stand this anymore. I wish I could hate Sam for all the pain she's causing me, but I can't. She's a good person, and she's made another good person very happy. She and Riley fit together, like two halves of the same whole. I can see that so clearly. Just as I know, I know, that I'll never have what they have. The man I loved to distraction is in Los Angeles, with his new loves and his work. We can't be together because of the danger we pose. When I tried to move on from him, I couldn't hold onto a man I should have treasured, and Riley's now with someone who completes him in the way I couldn't. Someone who's looking at me with pity in her eyes.

I have . . . nothing.

I have . . . someone who loves me.

And suddenly, I need him desperately. I tell Sam I need to talk to an informant and split, leaving her to go find Riley. Find her husband. I need to find Spike.

I need Spike.

He's in his crypt, ready to begin our banter, but it doesn't last long.

"Do you love me?" I ask, desperate to see it in his eyes.

And it's there, in his eyes, his voice, his body as I press against him hungrily. I pull him over to one of the crypts, pull him down on me, and give in to the oblivion he offers.

***

Sam

There's so much I know about Riley. I know his family, from a short visit we were able to make to Iowa just before Christmas. I know his favorite meal is beef roast with carrots and potatoes, preferably followed by strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream. I know he wouldn't be caught dead in anything approaching pink. I know how he is on the basketball court (good), on the golf course (bad), and in bed (really, really good). I know he goes to church whenever he can (Episcopalian for preference, but it really doesn't matter) and will dress down other soldiers for using bad language around a woman, yet will also happily cheat at cards, given half the chance.

I know all that, yet sometimes, I feel I don't know Riley Finn at all.

Buffy's not at all what I expected. I never expected to see such vulnerability in her, or the weight she carries. When Riley told me about their relationship and how it ended, I thought it would be easy to blame her for everything, in spite of Riley's repetition of how much of it was his own fault.

I think I see their basic problem now: Riley is, at heart, someone who needs to take care of other people. And Buffy can't be taken care of. She's a force of nature wrapped up in a surprisingly fragile young woman, and the most you can do is catch her when she falls. At least, that's what my very brief acquaintance with her leads me to believe. When we're away from here, I'll have to run my hypothesis by Riley and see what he thinks. Bet he'll agree.

I'm still not sure if she really was going to meet an informant or if it was just a handy way of shaking me loose, but it doesn't matter. She's got to do this her own way. I go to find Riley and finally track him down at a place called Willy's Bar.

"What do we know?" I ask as soon as I'm close enough.

He looks around. "Where's Buffy?"

"She had to talk to an informant," I tell him. "She said it'd be easier if she went alone."

He nods. "She's probably right. Usually is. We don't know much, by the way. I got a lead to someone called 'Doc,' but all I found was an abandoned house. I think I'll head back to the Summers' place. I forgot my laptop in the car, and I want to check in."

I go with him, and it's not long before we're sitting in the Summers' living room again. I spot a framed photograph of Buffy, with much longer hair, and Dawn with a woman who must have been their mother. All three look so happy.

Riley has Graham up on his screen now. "Graham. Anything new?"

"Not much," says Graham. "Have you made any progress?"

"The demon's dead. I had a miscommunication with the Slayer. We don't know where the eggs are."

"Riley, you dumbass," says Graham. "I hope Sam ripped you a new one."

"She did. Buffy's out talking to an informant right now, so hopefully, we'll know something soon."

"We might know something now. Hold on." Graham's typing now, bringing something up on his computer. "This is one of the surveillance shots we cleaned up. We've positively identified the buyer, and we think he's talking to the Doctor in this shot. Take a look."

The picture comes up on Riley's screen. It's blurry, even with the cleanup, but Graham was kind enough to put tags on it indicating which image is the buyer and which they think is the Doctor. All I can make out of the Doctor is that he seems mostly black, with some white on top. I don't know of any demons fitting that description; maybe an older human with black clothing on?

Riley's jaw has tightened up again. "You've gotta be kidding me," he mutters. Then he slams his laptop shut so quickly I jump.

"Riley?" I ask. He's on his feet now, preparing to head out.

"I think I know where this is all leading, Sam," he says. "I'm pretty sure I know who the Doctor is, and where he is."

"Then I'm going with you," I say, standing.

"No." Riley looks at me and holds up a hand, stopping my protest. "This guy can't hurt me, Sam, but I don't want you anywhere near him. I don't want him to know you exist. Just stay here."

He's gone before I can say anything else. All I can do is sit down and take another look at the picture Graham sent us.

Sometimes, I don't know my husband at all.

***

Buffy

My second-worst nightmare comes true the moment I wake with Spike: Riley's here, looking at us the way I once looked at him while a vampire whore was sucking his blood.

(My worst nightmare, by the way, involves Angel walking in on Spike and me.)

I slip away as quickly as I can, leaving the guys to their pissing contest. Riley thinks Spike is the Doctor. Spike? He of the thousand failed schemes?

I don't know what I'm doing. One second, I'm defending Spike against Riley. The next, I'm joining in the abuse of Spike on account of he has the gall to call me "love" in front of Riley. I don't understand even a little bit of this, and finally, Riley goes down to the lower level to look for the eggs. Briefly, I'm torn. I trust Riley to be doing what he genuinely believes is right; I don't think any of this is spite on his part. But Spike's looking at me, asking if I trust him after all the two of us have been through. In the end, I join Riley, believing Spike will be vindicated.

Only he's not. There are the eggs. Spike makes a lame excuse about keeping them for a friend, and I lose it. I slug him.

"No more games!" I yell.

His nose is bloodied, and his expression is hurt. "That's bloody funny coming from you. No games?" he yells right back. "That's all you've ever done is play me. You keep playing with the rules you make up as you like. You know what I am. You've always known. You come to me all the same."

He leaves, and Riley and I are stuck with a bunch of rapidly-hatching eggs. Riley hands me a gun. Has he forgotten just how bad I am with these things? Finally, we haul ass upstairs. I pull off his belt, opening one of the grenades on it, throw it down through the hole, and protect Riley with my own body as it blows. Crisis averted. Demons dead. It's over.

Can I cry now?

***

Sam

It's almost a letdown when Riley calls to let us know the eggs have been taken care of. I wanted to be there with him to see the end of this, but it was Buffy who was there. I almost wish I could resent her for that.

I check in with Graham, who informs me that we need to get our butts back to the base if we want to get any sleep before shipping out to Nepal. I let Riley know. He tells me he'll be back soon, but he wants to have a little time to talk with Buffy first.

"Right," I say, my throat just a little tight. "Graham's sending in a chopper, ETA twenty minutes. Will that be enough time?"

"Should be," he says. "I love you, Sammy."

"Love you too, Finn." I click off and let Willow know we're going. She gives Xander a call, and he shows up a few minutes later, looking like he's been through hell.

"Anya's demon friends and my monster relatives are staying at our place," he says. "Half the time, I can't even tell who the demons are." Willow reaches up and pats his head. Dawn comes downstairs, too, and I get the chance to talk with all of them.

Surprisingly, I find they've warmed up to me. "We're just really protective of Buffy," Willow says. "She's been through so much, and the arrival of her ex-boyfriend and his wife? Opportunities for all kinds of badness."

"Oh, and meeting your husband's ex-girlfriend the Slayer, spoken of in hushed and reverent tones by former Initiative members—that won't make you nervous," I say with a chuckle.

"She's something special," agrees Xander. "But to us, she's our Buffy. Doesn't matter about the rest. Now, about your wedding . . ."

I amuse them with stories about my wedding to Riley: about the rainstorm that put us all knee-deep in mud the day before, about how the few women in my unit scoured the surrounding villages for anything resembling a wedding dress (they finally dug up a lacy peasant blouse and a full skirt), about the extremely off-the-record striptease Graham did at my bachelorette party (one word: tequila), and about how all the preparations were scrapped at the last minute and we ended up getting married on a chopper. Even as Buffy's friends are laughing at my stories, though, I can't get my mind off of the fact that Buffy herself is having a private chat with my husband right now.

***

Buffy

I feel raw inside as I walk beside Riley. In spite of how amazingly unfazed he was about catching me naked with Spike, I'm sure he's wondering just what the hell is up with me.

But as we start to talk, I realize I'm wrong about him. Mr. Black-and-White has changed. He's somehow seen the whole picture where I've missed it. In spite of the crap-fest that is my life, in spite of all the mistakes I'm making, he can still see the girl he loved.

"You are one hell of a woman," he tells me, admiration in his voice, and tears sting my eyes. He sees me, and he makes me see me. I'm still Buffy Summers. When Tara told me that, it drove me to despair, because I couldn't see how it could be true. But now, when Riley says it, I understand: my life doesn't define me; I define it.

For the first time in a long time, I feel hope.

My friends and his wife come out to say last goodbyes. I watch, and I realize I've still got something special. I've got my friends and my sister, and they're always going to be there for me. Riley's got someone who'll always be there for him, too, and I'm glad he found Sam. She's not perfect—I mean, she's way too tall, for one thing—but she's perfect for him.

We all watch as the helicopter takes them away, and another chapter of my life closes. I stay outside for a little while before finally going in. Willow and Dawn are waiting for me.

"You okay?" asks Will.

"Sure. Yeah." My sister and my best friend just wait, and sure enough, my face starts to crumple, followed by the rest of me. In a moment, Willow and Dawn have their arms around me while I sob hysterically all over them.

***

Sam

Riley and I both doze in the helicopter as we fly back to base. I don't even want to think about everything that's happened; my brain is just too fried. All I want is a nice, hot shower and a bed.

Thank God that when we get back, we don't have to immediately file any reports. They must be taking pity on us. Instead, Riley and I go to our quarters, scrub off the accumulated grime of two days, and get ready for bed.

"She's really something," I say, breaking the silence. I don't have to explain whom I'm talking about.

"She really is," Riley agrees, yawning. We get into bed, and Riley turns out the lamp. Then he leans over to kiss me goodnight.

Something happens during that kiss. Suddenly, our hands are all over each other, and we're kissing deeply, hungrily. Riley pulls back.

"Sammy, are you too tired for this?" he asks, ever the gentleman.

Screw that. I answer by pulling him down for another kiss. He strips off my clothes in record time, and I manage to wrestle his off even though his hands and mouth are all over my body. Then he's on top of me, inside me, and I know why this is happening.

For a long time, I was intimidated by Buffy. No, not by Buffy herself: by the idea of Buffy. I wondered if Riley thought of her when he was with me. I wondered how many of the wonderful things he does to me he perfected with her.

But now, I know he's not thinking of her. This is for me, for the two of us, and the ghost of Buffy Summers has finally been banished.

When we finally collapse, tangled in each other and drifting off to sleep, I know: I belong to Riley Finn, and he belongs to me. It's as simple as that.

***

Buffy

There's something I have to do. Something I should have done long ago, but I didn't know how. Now, I know why I have to do it, and I know the words I need to say. It's still not going to be easy.

Spike's surveying the damage in his crypt when I enter, trying to see what he can salvage. For a moment, I just look at him. My eyes trace the face and body I know so well, and I feel the familiar desire for him.

He sees me a moment later, and his eyes trace a well-worn path over my body. "So, she's back," he says, forced casual. "Thought you'd be off snogging the soldier boy."

"He's gone," I say. The details don't matter, and Spike doesn't need to know about Sam. Riley's not the point of this conversation. Not at all.

"So, you've come for a bit of cold comfort?" Spike's voice is half-mocking, half-lustful, a familiar mix for the two of us. "The bed's a bit blown up, but then, that never was a . . ."

I cut him off before he can get any further. "I'm not here for . . ." No, it's best if I don't say it. "And I'm not here to bust your chops about your stupid evil scheme, either. That's just you. I should have remembered."

I do remember. In spite of all the good he's done, in spite of his gentleness with me when I first came back, in spite of his protection of Dawn, he's still Spike. Still soulless, still amoral, and there was no reason he could see not to keep those eggs.

Spike looks at me fully. "Oh, this is worse, then, is it? This is you telling me—"

"It's over," I finish for him.

He gets that "Yeah, right" look on his face, and let's face it, he has reasons not to believe me. I've lost count of the reasons, in fact.

"I've memorized this tune, love," he says. "I think I have the sheet music. Doesn't change what you want."

I don't argue. I can't. "I know that. I do want you. Being with you makes things simpler, for a little while."

For the first time, I see doubt in his eyes. He's starting to believe this time may be different. "I don't call five hours straight a little while."

"I'm using you," I say, forcing myself to go on, to tell him what I need to. "I can't love you." Because if I do, I'll be repeating a history I don't want to. "I'm just being weak and selfish—"

"Really not complaining here," interrupts Spike, and there's desperation in his voice now.

"—and it's killing me." There. The words are out. Using him for my release, my pleasure, using him to feel alive rather than actually living, is killing the girl I want to be again. The girl Tara says I still am. The girl Riley still sees in me.

I look at Spike, and I see him. I see the monster, who would keep our relationship just as it is no matter the cost, and I see the man, who wants so much more from me than I can ever give him. "I know I'm a monster, but you treat me like a man," Spike once told me, and I could see in his eyes that it meant the world to him. But I've been ignoring that man, abusing him, and it's wrong.

"I have to be strong about this," I finally say. Then I say farewell to the man inside the monster. "I'm sorry, William."

Turning away from Spike, I walk back outside into the daylight.