Disclaimer: If the characters were mine there would be no need to write this story; Buffy and Angel would already be living happily ever after in Aruba and Riley would never have existed. They belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy (sigh); I'm borrowing for fun (theirs, mine and hopefully yours), not profit. Pairing: B/A (go figure g) Rating: PG13 I guess Spoilers: Everything up to the end of Seasons 4/1, and selected things from Seasons 5/2 eps up to and including "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been." But no Dracula. Author's Note: This is the way I would have tied up some dangling characters and storylines.

All Roads Lead to Sunnydale By Gem

Buffy dropped down onto the curb and pulled her knees up under her chin. She was too far away to feel the heat of the flames or smell the smoke, but she could still hear the sirens in the distance. It wasn't over yet.

Four days, that was all it took. Four days ago she was hanging with her friends at the Bronze, patrolling suspiciously quiet cemeteries and putting off any life-altering decisions until some indeterminate point in the future. No one asked anything of her other than her presence, so she didn't have to play any games or pretend to feel things she couldn't. For the first time in a year she had permission not to feel anything at all. And somehow, in the dearth of expectations, she slowly began to rediscover the emotions she thought were forever lost.

Then came a sound she had never expected to hear again. The indifference she had been slowly trying to unwind from around her soul was stripped away in a flash, leaving her heart bruised and torn.

And Angel thought she was the one with the prophetic dreams.

* * * * *

Buffy had been doing her laundry when the first of the props in her house of cards caved in. Laundry was not usually a life-altering activity, even for her, but Fate always seemed to like mixing the mundane with the melodramatic. Good for contrast.

She was carefully checking her clothes for any stubborn stains as she moved them one by one from the laundry basket into her bureau. So far so good, but if she'd learned anything in her five years as defender of the universe, it was that the stain remover had yet to be invented that could eradicate every single type of demon blood. Even careful slayers died eventually, but at least they could die well dressed.

She was scrutinizing an intricately patterned halter-top for renegade demon spew when a sudden scraping noise came from behind her. She spun around; her heart prepared to see what her mind told her would never be again.

"Easy, killer," Riley laughed from outside her now-open window. "It's just me."

"Riley," she said flatly as her heart resumed beating. She could see instantly that her lackluster response was not what he had envisioned, but she was having a hard time dealing with the sight of him climbing in her bedroom window. The early morning sunlight was pouring in around him as he gracelessly tumbled into the room, yet her traitorous imagination colored the sky black around a large dark figure silently slipping over the sill.

She shook her head to dispel the illusion, leaving only Riley standing sheepishly in the center of the room.

"I wanted to surprise you," he said awkwardly. "I just got back into town and I couldn't wait to see you. Thought coming in the window would be more romantic." He shrugged.

"Umm, yeah, well..." she fumbled, searching for a reason for her silence. Searching, that is, for any reason but the real one. "It was, I mean, it is, but you really shouldn't do that. The tree, that is to say the roof, isn't very sturdy, and the tree isn't actually...it's just not a good idea."

"Okay, I won't do it again," he agreed amicably. "But since I'm here, don't I get a kiss? It's been a long summer." He held open his arms.

A kiss, of course; that was what a girl was supposed to do when her boyfriend came to see her after a two-month absence. Habit propelled her across the room to slide into his embrace. She pulled his head down for a kiss, but before their lips could meet, a voice was heard from the doorway.

"Riley, how nice!" Joyce Summers beamed at her daughter's tall, blonde, human boyfriend. "When did you get here? How did you get here?" She looked quizzically at Buffy.

Riley grinned sheepishly and pointed to the window. "Took a shortcut. Just got back in town about an hour ago. You're looking well, Mrs. Summers. How are you?"

"I'm fine, thank you. My, don't you look tanned! You must have spent the whole summer out in the sun, just like Buffy."

Unspoken was the comparison to a certain former window-breacher who couldn't do things like that, but Buffy heard her loud and clear.

"Mom, was there a reason you came up?" Buffy asked pointedly. "You told me you had to be at the gallery early today." She resisted the urge to tap her foot, but the downward turn of her mouth and the crossed arms expressed her impatience quite clearly.

Joyce's cheery smile dimmed slightly in the face of her daughter's confusing ill humor. "I just wanted to tell you Xander called. He and that Anya girl are on their way over to pick you up. Is it just me or is she...a little strange?"

"She used to be a demon," Riley said, rolling his eyes.

Joyce sagely nodded her head. "Ah, that explains a lot."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Buffy flared. "So she used to be a demon. She isn't one now. Even if she was, that's her business, and Xander's, no one else's. It's not like all demons are bad anyway."

She turned her back to both of them and stared pointedly at an old poster on her wall. Like all the other relics of her former life, it should have been discarded long ago, but she hadn't the strength to take the final step. Some day, though, she would be forced to, and a little more of the Buffy that once was would disappear.

Joyce shared a concerned glance with Riley. "Honey, I'm sorry, I just meant...well, being a demon means she's not too used to humans and how to act around them. It makes sense now that her behavior is a little, umm, odd."

Buffy instinctively tensed when Riley's large hand fell upon her shoulder, then she consciously relaxed her muscles. Her boyfriend was comforting her, she reminded herself; this was normal, this was good. Turning around to face him, and her worried mother, she forced an apologetic smile.

"I'm sorry too. Not sure why I'm so edgy this morning." She shrugged her slim shoulders, trying to adopt a more carefree persona. "Pre-semester jitters, I guess. New classes, new professors, the whole she-bang coming up in the a.m. And it's not like there's even been a lot of demon activity lately to take the edge off."

"Well now I'm here," Riley said with a playful leer. "I'll have you relaxed in no time."

"And on that note, I'll be going." Joyce waved her hand at Riley as she backed out of the room. "I'm glad you're back, Riley. Buffy's been down all summer with you away. " She shook her finger at her daughter with mock severity. "But what is it with men and your bedroom window? Now that you're living home again I really should invest in better locks. Or should I make that a ladder?" She disappeared, leaving Buffy to deal with a puzzled Riley.

"Have there been a lot of men climbing in your bedroom window?" he teased, as he picked up a stuffed animal from her bed. When Buffy didn't smile, or even seem to hear him, he became a little suspicious. He took a step closer to her and placed his finger under her chin, tilting her head up to face him. "Or is she talking about one in particular, like the one who had to be invited first?"

Buffy jerked her head away and looked down at her hands, at the floor, anywhere but at Riley. It wouldn't be fair to look at him right now, with so many images from the past blocking out the present.

"I'm right, aren't I?" he pressed. "That's how Angel used to get in. And that's why you don't want me to use the same way. Because it makes you think of him, doesn't it?" He tried to keep the accusatory note out of his voice, but the pain he glimpsed in her evasive eyes struck a nerve.

Buffy knew she had to respond, though she really didn't know what to say. "Riley," she began helplessly. "It's just not a good idea. I mean, you shouldn't be climbing tall trees and sliding around on rooftops. It's dangerous."

"Because I'm not as strong as he is or as coordinated? Is that supposed to make me feel better?" He had a sudden irrational wish that he'd never stopped taking those damn steroid pills. At least with them he could have the illusion of keeping up with his miniature Amazon of a girlfriend.

Without thinking he twisted the body of the small stuffed pig in his tightening hands.

"I'm not trying to make you feel anything, Mr. Nice-to-see-you-and-have-a- guilt-trip-on-me," Buffy flared as she snatched Mr. Gordo from his grasp. "Yes, Angel used to come in that way, a really long time ago, and I used to sneak out the same way to see him." She stepped back a few paces and faced him defiantly. "I don't sneak out anymore, Riley. I use the door. And I don't need to hide it from my mother when my boyfriend stops by. You she adores."

Riley was puzzled as to how he lost the upper hand, but he realized that somehow she thought he was in the wrong. That was not how it was supposed to be; he was supposed to be the good guy. That was the plan.

"Buffy, I..."

"The Buffy who did all that is gone, Riley," she continued vehemently. "I may have moved home and I may be living in a shrine to the goddess of puberty, but I'm not the girl who created it. I can't be her ever again."

Oh God, how I wish I could be, she cried silently.

Mr. Gordo's button eyes seemed to shine in mute sympathy as she gently placed him next to her pillow.

"Hey, I don't want you to. I like who you are now," Riley protested. He concentrated on softening his tone, trying to smooth over the tumultuous waters. He didn't want to scare her.

Buffy stared at him, thinking bleakly that he had no idea who she was; she'd never let him see anything but the fa├žade she showed the world. To him she was College Buffy, Normal Buffy, Happy Buffy. Gotta give the crowd what they want to see or they'll leave and you'll be all alone Buffy.

"Okay, new topic." Riley gathered the somewhat fraying edges of his temper as he guided her over to sit on the edge of the bed. "How was your summer without me? From what your mom just said, you spent it pining over me." The thought immediately restored him to his usual good humor.

"Summer was fine." Buffy made a determined effort to focus her thoughts on Riley. "Not much in the way of demons, but lots of quality beach time. I pretty much took a mental vacation instead of a body one."

She looked at Riley's smiling, tanned face, trying to summon up the joy she should be feeling at his return. But after months of neglect, her emotions were apparently no longer responding to commands. All she could conjure up was a whining regret that the separation was over so soon. He was going to need things from her and expect things of her, and the only thought in her mind right now was pushing him out the window he came in. Anything to escape.

"Well, I missed you like crazy." Riley slipped his arm around her shoulders and held her close. "You always sounded kind of distant on the phone. I couldn't wait to get back and really talk to you."

Buffy choked on her laughter, trying to smother it with her hand. She suddenly realized what was wrong with this reunion. He wanted to talk and share and bond, and she wanted things back to the same old numbness. There lay safety.

Everlasting, smothering, stultifying safety.

"Talk? As in deep, meaningful conversation? Umm, Riley, that's really not what we do best. It's nice and all, but highly overrated. Can't we find something a little less Oprah to do?" She tipped her head up to kiss him, determined to get their relationship back on its old familiar footing. There had to be at least one thing she could salvage from the wreck that was last year, and maybe it was this.

After all, Angel seemed to think sex was the key to a "normal" relationship.

Riley's lips touched hers, and it was though a cascade of ice water suddenly flowed down her back. She jerked away, staring at him in confusion. She'd kissed him, and done a whole lot more than that, time and time again last year. She may not have felt the earth move, but it was never quite so...gross. Without thinking, her hand came up to brush the taste of him off her lips.

"Buffy, what's wrong now?" Riley was getting annoyed. So far his welcome home had been decidedly lacking in welcome.

She couldn't face him. She turned her head away, staring at her closet door. "I...I just remembered Xander and Anya are coming over. I don't want to get involved in something we can't finish." The thought of what she almost started, and where it would have led created a barely repressed shudder.

Riley eyed her doubtfully, but he had never been very good at knowing when she was lying to him. Lacking the instinct, he had to rely on her tone, which sounded sincere to him.

"Okay," he said, massaging her unusually tense shoulders, "how about we just get rid of them? We haven't been alone since before the big showdown with Adam last spring." He grinned at the memory of their pre-showdown activities as he leaned over to nibble on her ear.

The minute his lips made contact with her skin, Buffy jumped to her feet, leaving Riley to sprawl awkwardly on the bed. She glanced back when she heard his muffled curse, but she made no move from her sanctuary in the center of the room.

"Riley, I can't. We're all going over to help Tara move into the apartment. We got Willow moved in last week, but Tara doesn't arrive until today." She tried very hard to sound disappointed.

He took a deep breath and tried another tack. "An apartment," he mused, tapping his finger on his chin. "Wouldn't that be a great idea? Now that you're living with your mom again and I'm stuck in the graduate student housing because the government destroyed Lowell House, we're going to have a big problem finding time to be alone." Riley sat up abruptly. "Say, maybe we should get an apartment, just you and me. Wouldn't that be terrific?"

"Riley," Buffy said quickly, "I think you're getting ahead of..."

Riley ignored the sounds of distress in his girlfriend's voice as he began to pace around the room. He waved his hands to point out imaginary furniture as he spoke, planning everything within the space of minutes.

"...and we can have a little window box garden and I have this great old beanbag chair of my dad's that will be perfect to snuggle in, and I promise I'll help with the cooking and the dishes." He swung around to face Buffy, still seeming not to notice her lack of enthusiasm. "I know of this old apartment building on the end of Crawford Street, so we'll be near the campus and..."

"No!" Buffy managed to make herself heard at last. "Not Crawford Street. Not apartment, actually. You, me, living together, not. No." She took her breath in huge gulps, feeling like she had just come up from under deep water after far too long.

"Buffy, why are you so upset? I mean, yeah, maybe it's a little soon, but I just want to be with you. The way things are now, we'll be stuck making out in the cemetery during patrol." His guileless tanned face loomed over her as he put his arms around her.

Buffy fought off the memories that overtook her as she tried not to fight off Riley. He was her boyfriend, he loved her and she should be overjoyed to see him again. Instead, every word out of his mouth seemed designed to bring the ghost of Angel into the room with them.

"Well, I see we arrived just in time," said Xander from the doorway. "Buffy already gets enough gratuitous violence in her life; I don't think she has time for the sex right now."

Buffy pushed away from Riley and tried to look annoyed. "Xander Harris, have you ever heard of knocking?"

"No, but I have heard of knocking boots, and I think you were about to get a free home trial." Xander held up his hands in surrender. "Hey, your mom said it was okay to just come up."

"Are you ready to go yet?" Anya asked, muffling a yawn with her hand. "I want to get this manual labor over with so I can go back to bed." She wrapped her arms possessively around Xander's waist. "I happen to like gratuitous sex."

Riley looked as though he wanted to comment, but Buffy didn't give him the chance. She grabbed her knapsack from the chair and waved her hand at her erstwhile boyfriend.

"Come on, time to go. You have unpacking to do, we have unpacking to do, and we all have class tomorrow."

"Even Xander," Anya said proudly.

Buffy saw the grateful smile Xander flashed Anya in response and it made her heart twist tightly in her chest. She couldn't remember the last time she felt such unrestrained pride in someone, or basked in the glow of his pride in her. Or rather, she could, but those memories hurt even more than the lack of them would.

"It's just a few classes," Xander said modestly. "I took my SATs over again, and Anya helped me actually study this time, so UC Sunnydale accepted me."

"You just needed the proper incentive. But even if it worked, I still think Willow had an ulterior motive for suggesting the withholding of sex." Anya pouted as she thought of all that wasted time.

"Not exactly an original plan" Buffy admitted dryly, "but it did the trick. Or not, actually."

"Hey!" Xander snapped. "Now that you know what I didn't do last summer, can we go off topic? We have heavy man-type lifting to do today. Riley, old buddy, old pal, do you want to help.ouch!" He glared at Buffy. "Excuse me, Ms. Stronger-than-a-locomotive. When you're trying to make a point, either don't use your elbow to do it, or back off on the super powers, please."

Buffy smiled apologetically at Xander, then at Riley. "Sorry, Xand, but I don't want you taking advantage of Riley's good nature. He just got back; he has his own unpacking to do."

"Besides, you know Buffy's stronger than Riley," Anya said carelessly. "What do we need him for?"

What indeed, Buffy puzzled, not daring to meet Riley's eyes.

* * * * *

"I tell you, Will, it was positively Psychic Hotline," Buffy confessed as she dropped a box of books on Willow's living room floor. "It was like Riley was channeling or something. Welcome to the All Angel wavelength."

"Maybe someone is being just a teensy bit too sensitive?" Her best friend's tone was gentle, but the 'mom' note was unmistakable.

Buffy raised her hand as if in pledge. "Everything that came out of his mouth was some sort of blast from the past. A past he should know nothing about, I might add." She sat cross-legged on the floor next to the bookcase and began to pull the books out of the box and place them on the shelves.

Willow pushed a stray lock of red hair out of her eyes as she looked over her shoulder at Buffy. "But you told him about Angel months ago. Why shouldn't he know this stuff?" She returned her attention to the altar she was arranging on a milk crate, until Buffy's silence became too great to ignore.

"Buffy, you did tell him everything, didn't you? I know he knows about Angel; Xander told me he did." She looked sternly at her best friend, trying to will the correct response.

"Yeah, and Xander told him a whole lot more than I ever meant to," Buffy replied with a grimace. "Thing is, there are some things Xander doesn't know, and I certainly never had plans to share the nitty gritty details of my ex with this year's model. But everything he said or did...it was like he already knew and he was baiting me."

"That's crazy, Buffy." Willow waved away any possibility of that as reality. "Riley would never do that. Where is all this coming from?" She sat down on the floor next to Buffy, waiting patiently for an answer.

Buffy looked away, unable to bear the sympathy she could see shining in Willow's eyes. She toyed with the book in her hand, endlessly turning it over in her hands as though it were a Rubik's cube she needed to solve.

"I don't know," she said helplessly. "I guess I'm just confused. I never let myself think about...I mean I never thought about Angel when I was with Riley; of course I didn't. But now...suddenly everything is like a great big post-it note with Angel's name on it."

"Well, maybe it's because this was the first time you guys have really been apart, like you and, well, you know who I mean. But Riley came back."

"You think that's all it is?" Buffy asked bleakly. "Sort of a weird survivor's guilt or something?"

She knew the guilt of moving on at the price of another's pain, but she never thought to feel guilty for her own pain. She tried very hard not to think of her own pain at all, ever. Thinking led to feeling, which only led to more pain.

"Sure," Willow said, a little too heartily. "You love Riley and he came back and now you're feeling guilty because the times Angel came back, well, things weren't so simple."

Buffy placed the last book on the shelf and rose smoothly to her feet. She carried the now empty book box over to the door and placed it with the rest.

"Maybe that's it, Will," she replied heavily. "Things are really simple with Riley; we don't fight, he gets along with my mother, even Xander tolerates him. Mostly. My whole life is really simple now. Cut and dried. Clear shot from start to finish. Nothing but blue skies and picnics in the park. Why wouldn't I feel guilty?"

"You do sound guilty," Willow said uneasily, "but suddenly I'm not so sure it's because you're happy. I thought you two were doing really well, but now you sound like you wish Riley had never come back."

Buffy looked down at her hands for a moment, remembering when one hand had been graced with a ring of a value beyond words. The ring was gone now, irretrievably lost, like the girl who had worn it. At least she had told Riley one truth today. There was no going back to the old Buffy, the one who would die for love. She vanished into the smoke and shadows long ago.

She drew a deep breath. "Don't be silly, Will. Of course I'm glad he's back. Summer is a great vacation from reality, but now it's over and time for a normal life again. It's what I've always wanted, right?"

She had made her bed, and now it was literally time to lie in it.

* * * * *

The "normal life" Buffy had long desired was hers for the asking. As with most things in her life, it seemed to work a lot better in theory than in practice.

Riley came over with pizza later in the day, to feed the hungry workers, and then he drove Buffy home. Coming to a smooth stop, he parked the car on the street rather than the driveway. He pulled the key from the ignition and pocketed it, then draped his arm across the back of Buffy's seat.

"I haven't made out in a car since high school," he joked, trying to slide closer to her without risking injury from the gearshift on the floor between them. "My dad's old truck had a bench seat, which made things a whole lot easier, let me tell you. Still, I think we can..."

"Riley, stop," Buffy said desperately, holding him back with one hand placed firmly on his chest. "You're right; making out in a car is way too high school. Besides, I still have to patrol. Alone," she added quickly when she saw he was about to speak. "I just want to make a quick sweep and then get to bed. You know, big day tomorrow, first day of school. Shiny- new-apple-for-the-teacher time. You understand."

"I wish I didn't," he said with a wounded look in his blue eyes. "Buffy, why are you making up excuses not to be with me? I missed you. Didn't you miss me?"

"Well of course I did," she said, after too long of a pause. "But I have responsibilities, as a friend, as a student and as a slayer."

"What about as a girlfriend?" Riley almost growled. He slid back to the farthest edge of his seat and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Why are you pulling this guilt trip on me again?" She stared at him; not believing this was simple, uncomplicated Riley causing her all these hassles. "I'm here, aren't I? Jeeze! We don't have to spend every single second attached at the groin to prove we're a couple."

Unseen by Riley in the darkness of the car, Buffy could feel her face flush at her words. She remembered all too clearly when she had believed that was precisely what they needed to do. Angel had made it seem like such an important part of a relationship, and it was such an easy way to...no, no, no! She mentally smacked herself in the head for being the one to bring the ghost of Angel between them this time. This was about she and Riley, no one else. The trouble was, she suddenly wasn't sure if there ever really was a she and Riley.

"I'm willing to settle for a little friendly conversation," he said grumpily. "Just tell me what you're thinking. Relationships are about sharing things like thoughts and feelings."

She looked at him silently for a moment, seeing not the man in front of her, but another. She remembered many soft and sweet conversations with that dark man of her past; conversations where she laid her heart open, knowing she was putting it in safekeeping.

Until the day he walked away, disappearing in the smoke and shadows with that self-same heart in his hands.

"Riley," she began with difficulty, "I feel as close to you now as I can ever imagine feeling to anyone again. I don't think words are gonna change that. Good night." She opened her car door and slid out before he could say another word.

She held back her tears through a quick hello to her mother, and all the way up the stairs, but the dam broke as soon as she reached her room. All of her beautiful numbness was gone, ripped away by the sight of the wrong head at her bedroom window. Now there was nothing left but a raw, aching emptiness destined to remain unfilled.

* * * * *

Buffy half-expected Riley to follow her out on patrol later that night, despite her request for solitude, but to her relief he abided by her wishes. She made a quick sweep of the new graves in the cemeteries, but found no new vamps on whom to vent her frustrations.

Angel's ghost haunted and taunted her every step of the way, reminding her of the thousand ways she had drawn him, sometimes against his will, into her life, and of the equal number of ways she had firmly kept Riley out.

At last she conceded defeat, at least in the slayage department. All that was left for her to do was go home and do a wardrobe check for clothes suitable for the first day of sophomore year. Well, that and feel guilty for thinking of Angel when she should have been thinking of Riley. Both were items she would have been happy to erase from the agenda, but neither seemed avoidable.

Riley came by early the next morning to give her a ride to campus. Buffy was carefully gracious to him, and he was unfailingly polite to her, but the shadow of the previous night hung between them. As the day went on and Riley seemed to pop up whenever she was not in class, he began to thaw towards her. Buffy should have been relieved, but all she could feel was a growing dread.

By the time the Slayer and Slayerettes gathered for lunch, Riley was his old self. He joked with her friends, and told her about his classes and asked about hers. In short, he exhibited all the appropriate boyfriend behavior, since he was a very appropriate boyfriend.

Buffy tried to concentrate on living in the now, in her perfect "normal" life, but she could feel herself drifting further away with each passing moment. She tried to pull herself back, but a bone-chilling cold crept over her limbs, cutting her off from those she loved and from love itself. It was the numbness she once craved; the absence of pain and loss, but a summer's worth of reflection had made her realize it was also the absence of joy and peace.

"I can't...I can't do this now," she stammered, interrupting one of Xander's jokes. She shoved her chair back from the table as she hastily rose to her feet. Riley, ever the gentleman, started to stand up as well, but she waved him away.

"I'm fine," she said impatiently. "I just need to be alone for awhile. I'll call you tomorrow." She all but ran to get to her next class. Mercifully, it was her last one of the day.

Riley stared after her and scratched his head. He turned back to the confused Scoobies, hoping they would have some insight he was lacking. He wanted to get a reading of Buffy's emotional temperature, to learn more about what happened over the summer to alter her perception of him so drastically, to understand what she wanted from him. He needed to communicate the depth of his concern so they would help him help Buffy.

"Was it something I said?"

* * * * *

All summer long, all year long really, the vampires had been giving Sunnydale a wide berth. Buffy had slain some demons in the past year, and to her regret, she had helped to capture some for the Initiative, but few of them were vampires. Patrolling the cemeteries had literally become a dead loss. Still, she always seemed to do her best thinking surrounded by tombstones, and tonight Buffy needed to commune with her thoughts.

She was still trying to puzzle out how Riley had unwittingly managed to touch on so many troubled areas of her past when she heard a heavy and unwelcome tread behind her.

"Riley, you really shouldn't be here," she said with a sigh, not bothering to turn around.

"Is that any way to talk to a guy who's combed fifteen cemeteries to find you?" Riley hurried to catch up with her and slid his arm around her stiff shoulders.

"I thought I said I could do this alone."

"I was worried about you, and I didn't want to leave things the way they were." He squeezed her shoulders. "It feels like you're still mad at me for yesterday. Besides, we always patrolled together."

Not always, her rebellious mind grumbled as she forced herself to submit to his slightly sweaty embrace. When he tried to nuzzle her ear, however, common sense threw her a lifeline.

"Riley, this is not the place for that," she said firmly. She twisted out from under his smothering arm and took a firmer grip on her crossbow.

"Since when?" Riley was honestly puzzled. "It's not like we've never made out against a headstone before. Granted we never did it for long." he grinned at her. "We usually couldn't wait to get back to some place more private. With a bed."

Buffy winced as memories of the previous year flooded her mind. She was suddenly overcome with shame as she realized the reason she had always hurried him into bed was to escape the very thoughts and memories she had sought out tonight. Sex with Riley had not required thought, or emotion for that matter, just physical sensation. That she could give, and receive, but to Riley she knew it had meant more.

"Riley, I really don't think this is the time..." she hedged.

"Buffy, what the hell is wrong?" he exploded. "I touch you and you cringe. I try to talk to you, and you say we communicate better without words. So I touch you again and you dump me on my ass. When I left we were fine. What happened to you? I know you can't have been seeing Angel, but did you meet someone new?" His hands were clenched in fists by his side as he waited for her answer.

She swallowed nervously, stunned by his anger. Before yesterday, Riley's temper had been non-existent, along with most other strong emotions. The 'blue-eyed bland' was what Anya called him, among other things, and Buffy had silently agreed. He had been her safe haven from the storm of emotions she had once been drowning in. Suddenly he was his own little thunderstorm, and she was ill prepared for the change in weather.

"Answer me!" he commanded, when at last her silence had gone on too long.

Buffy's temper flared, jolted from its long slumber by the dictatorial tone in his voice. "The only person I met over the summer was the old Buffy, and I don't think she's speaking to me anymore. But on her behalf, let me ask you something for a change." She pushed him back slightly, just enough to make him lose his balance for a moment. "Just where do you get off playing big he-man ordering the little woman around? I'm an adult, and I'm not going to let you or anyone else tell me what to do or how to feel or what's best for me."

"I'm what's best for you."

His voice had suddenly changed. He was now using the sweetly reasonable tone she remembered so well from last year. It was the voice that seductively promised her a normal life; the voice that said demon-hunting was a job, not a calling and she could quit any time she wanted; the voice that said she was free to be just like every other girl, not The Chosen One; no one special at all.

But once upon a time, to a very special man, she had been a very special woman indeed. She missed that feeling. She missed that man. And she missed that woman too.

"You don't even know me," she said flatly. "This past year has been some sort of never-ending Halloween party. When I'm with you, suddenly I'm Barbie, you're Ken and the whole world is covered in pink plastic. Once upon a time that would have given me the biggest happy you can imagine. But I'm better than that now, or I should be."

She looked away for a moment, and then faced him squarely. It was time to take charge of her life again. "I don't think we should see each other any more."

She couldn't believe she said that. Even as the words were given life in the cool night air, she wished them back. The seesaw of her newly revived emotions dipped wildly as she weighed her freedom against being alone and abandoned once again.

"You're breaking up with me?" Riley was stunned. This was not supposed to happen this way. Too fast, it was all happening too fast, he muttered nervously to himself.

Buffy felt a wave of guilt wash over her at the sight of his stricken face. She'd hurt Riley, who had always been so kind to her. Kind and gentlemanly and helpful.and smothering and patronizing and judgmental and.no!

A door slammed shut in her mind. This was too much for her to process all at once. She hastily back-pedaled, trying to find her way to safer ground.

"I think," she began slowly, "I think what I really need is a break. I need some time to be by myself and figure out who I am. I never really took the time after..." she hesitated, not wanting to introduce a painful subject.

Riley, however, had no such compunction.

"After Angel dumped you, that's what you were going to say, right? Poor little Buffy, so lost and alone." He mimicked playing a violin as his face twisted into bitter lines. "My heart bleeds when I think about it. Angel dumps you and you decide Parker looks like good rebound material, but he dumps you too. Then along comes poor dumb Riley, who actually loves you, the way neither of those two sub-humans can. So what do you do? String me along until you get your sea legs back, and then it's so long Riley, been nice knowing you."

"Except it hasn't been nice," Buffy retorted, her sympathy wiped away by the sarcastic tone in Riley's voice. "It's been one long vacation in the Land of the Bland. God, I can't believe I used to actually complain about not having a normal life."

She wasn't sure where her words were coming from, and she was fairly sure when morning came she'd regret having given them voice. Still, at this moment, she was forced to recognize them as the truth.

He gripped her arms tightly. "I am your normal life, Buffy. Last chance for it actually. How many guys do you think would be able to survive in this freak show you call reality? I can, and I can help you get out when the time is right."

"There is no out, Riley. You never got that, did you? " She looked at him as though she had never seen him before. Maybe she never really had. "There's a reason I'm called The Chosen One, not She Who Got to Choose. It's not a job for me, or an adventure; it's plain old destiny. You're the one with the weird hobby."

"You dated a vampire and you calling me weird?"

"I loved a man, a good man." She forced her arms away from her body to break his painful grasp. "Once upon a time I thought I could say the same about you, but I guess I was wrong."

Riley shook his head and addressed the heavens. "Doesn't matter how hard a guy tries, does it? No matter what I do, I just can't stack up to the vamp with a soul. No one can measure up to good old Angel, so why bother trying?"

Buffy glared at him. "That's right Riley; why even bother? You're not half the man he is, and you never will be." She turned on her heel and stalked away, not bothering to see if he was following her. In truth she was too busy being stunned by how good she felt. Free at last, free at last.

Riley watched her head for the older section of the cemetery, a place where no vamps were likely to rise, but also a place far removed from his unwelcome self.

"Angel, Angel, Angel," he chanted angrily, pacing back and forth. "It always come back to Angel."

"It does indeed, my dear," said a silky voice from behind him.

* * * * *

Buffy heard a yelp come from the newer section of the cemetery, where she assumed Riley was still sulking. Part of her wanted to write it off as a pathetic bid for attention, but the slayer in her demanded that she investigate.

When she reached the monument where she had last seen him, there was no sign of Riley. A careful sweep of the grounds revealed no trace of the former commando at all, including the car she knew he must have driven to the cemetery. She could almost sense a presence in the area, like a tickle in the back of her mind, but there were no detectable signs of life, or undeath. On the plus side, there was also no sign of a fight, which made the whole pathetic bid for attention idea seem more likely.

Finally she abandoned her search, resolving to call him after they both had a chance to cool off. She put her crossbow up on her shoulder and headed back to Revello Drive, savoring her guilty, but delicious, freedom.

* * * * *

Alone in the darkness she who waited, smiled.

-To Be Continued-