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Could Be You - Chapter 9, Part A

This chapter is apparently just slightly too long for LJ's liking, so I'm posting it in two parts!  Make sure you read the first part first!  This is Part A!

Title:
Could Be You 
Chapter:
Nine, Part A
Rating:
NC-17 for sexual situations, blood play
Summary:
  You know you wanna dance.  Spike knew it, the fans knew it, and this time, Buffy knew it, too.  Begins in the alley scene outside the Bronze during Fool for Love and moves swiftly off-canon.
Disclaimer:  The characters herein are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy.  They are being used out of respect and admiration, and not for the sake of profit.  No copyright infringement is intended.
Beta:
dampersnspoons  
Banner: xtanitx 
Previous Chapter: Chapter Eight

 


Could Be You

Chapter Nine
Part A

*~*

“Buffy?”

Buffy wiped the water off her face, blinked her eyes open, and looked toward the curtain and the Dawn-shaped silhouette backlit in it.

“Knock much?  I’m kinda naked here, Dawn.”

“I know, sorry.” Shadow-Dawn started moving away.  “I just—never mind, I’ll go.”

“Wait—” Buffy peeked around the curtain just as Dawn reached for the door handle.  “Dawn!  Come here.”

Dawn stopped but didn’t turn, instead bringing her hand from the doorknob to rub at her eyes, but the tears she tried to hide slid down her cheeks unchecked.  The dull ache in Buffy’s chest throbbed harder and she tried again to swallow that stupid lump in her throat.

“Dawnie, hey, come here.”

Dawn kept her head down, the cascade of hair preventing Buffy from seeing her sister’s face as she came forward to lean against the edge of the shower.  Her slim body shook, but the falling water hid all but the sound of a single pained sob.  Buffy reached out with a wet arm and wrapped it around her, and Dawn launched herself forward, heedless of the drenched shower curtain or the shampoo suds, and buried her face in Buffy’s shoulder.

Her throat lump threatened to choke, and Buffy bit her lip and fought back the tears already blurring her vision.  She couldn’t keep Dawn from the truth this time, no matter how much she wanted to stuff her into a cupboard until the doctors could fix their mother, but she could be the strong one — and that, at least, was a role she was used to.

Dawn sighed and whispered, “I’m just so scared.”

“I know, Dawnie,” Buffy said, and Dawn pulled back, leaning her head against the edge of the shower while the tears fell freely.  “We’re all worried.”

Dawn nodded but said nothing, staring now at her painted fingernails. 

Buffy tucked a strand of hair behind Dawn’s ear.  “We can’t let Mom know that, okay?  We have to be strong for her right now.”

“You mean like happy thoughts and stuff?”  Dawn’s watery gaze met Buffy’s and she scrubbed at her eyes, a hint of a smile stretching her lips.  “I think I can do that. Buffy?”

“Mmhmm?”

“She will be okay, won’t she?”

For once in her life, Buffy wished she had the power to control the universe and everyone in it, if only to make her words come true and drive away the sorrow in Dawn’s eyes.

“Of course she will, Dawn.” The band around her chest tightened and she clenched her fist behind the curtain.  “Don’t you for one minute stop believing that.”

Buffy’s voice must have carried the conviction her heart lacked.  Despite the quiver in her lip and the tears that hadn’t quit, Dawn’s smile widened and she reached out to stoke Buffy’s wet hair.

“You’re all wet and cold!” she said, eyebrows turning in.  “Oh, that’s my bad, isn’t it?  Do you have any hot water left?”

“Don’t worry about it, sweetie.  There’s enough.”

Nodding, Dawn moved away from the curtain and hopped up on the counter to wait.  Buffy finished up before she really did run out of hot water, wrapped herself up in the towel Dawn handed to her, and crossed the hall to her bedroom.

Spike didn’t even twitch when she returned, and though she wanted to linger and watch him sleep a while, the day was waiting.  Buffy quietly dressed, adjusted the drapes to keep the light out, and headed down to the kitchen.

By the time Dawn trudged down the stairs after her turn in the bathroom, Buffy had gulped down a mug of strong coffee and scraped together a mostly edible breakfast of French toast and bacon.  The bacon was a little too crispy and the toast a little soggy, but Dawn cleaned her plate and said a quiet thank you.

“Do I have to go to school today?” she asked, placing the dishes in the sink and glancing at her backpack by the door.

“No, we should both go be with Mom,” Buffy said.  “I just wanna—”

A loud knock from the front door interrupted her train of thought.  Buffy glanced at Dawn and then moved toward the entrance to the kitchen in time to hear the front door opening.

“Hello?  Buffy?”

The sound of Riley’s voice stopped her in mid-step and she stood frozen in place as Riley started up the hallway toward her.

Oh, God!

An explosion of adrenaline roared through her body and Buffy took two panicked steps back, pulling in a gasping breath when her back hit the edge of the island. The contact burst through the moment of panic but the itch in her legs urging her to flee refused to settle, and she dug her fingernails into her thighs to keep herself from running out the back door. 

Riley stepped into the room, nodded at Dawn and smiled hello to Buffy.

“But I thought...”

Buffy spun around in time to see Dawn’s eyes flicking rapidly between herself and Riley, and an extra pain blossomed in Buffy’s gut for having unwittingly dragged Dawn into the middle of this.  Dawn caught Buffy’s gaze and opened her mouth to speak, but Buffy shook her head as subtly as she could manage while her heart thundered like a freight train, and Dawn snapped her jaw shut.  Buffy turned away to avoid her sister’s narrow-eyed stare and greet the oblivious Riley.

He smiled nervously, hands busy fiddling with his bunched-up sweater, and Buffy couldn’t figure out why he should be the anxious one when she was hiding a naked vampire in her bed.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call last night,” Riley said. 

Right.  He didn’t wait and he didn’t call.  Buffy exhaled the breath she was holding.

Riley shrugged his shoulders and glanced behind Buffy. “But I see you two made it home safe and sound.”

Buffy uncurled her fingers from her jeans and tried to match his nonchalant shrug. “Yep, all safe and sound, that’s us.”

Buffy swallowed, fearing Riley would see right through her forced cheerfulness and wondering if babbling like an idiot would distract him or clue him in further when Riley came forward, cutting off her internal argument as he folded her into a hug.  He wrapped his arms around her before she could figure out a way to avoid it without rousing his suspicions.  He was still technically her boyfriend, after all, but with Spike upstairs and Dawn glaring holes into the back of her head, Buffy didn’t know whether to hug him back or let him crush her into an unmoving Buffy-shaped ball of uncertainty.

Even without the Initiative enhancements, Riley’s hold was strong and Buffy allowed him to squish her into his chest.  Things could be awkward later, when they didn’t have an audience and her mother didn’t have a brain tumour.  She squeezed her eyes shut and pretended that the arms that once felt so warm and comforting wrapped around her weren’t now so cool and confining. 

Riley loosened his hold and brought his hands up to grip her shoulders, his smile having shifted from nervous to something resembling pleased.  “Can I do anything?  Maybe give you a ride to the hospital?”

Buffy had the feeling that it made her a spectacularly bad person to accept Riley’s offer but she nodded her head anyway and excused herself upstairs for a last minute trip to the bathroom.

Her heart beat loudly in her ears as she walked by her closed bedroom door, not daring to go inside and tempt fate.  Her skin tingled from the proximity to his presence, both her slayer’s reaction to a nearby vampire and Buffy’s reaction to Spike.  It was no coincidence that the warmth seeping into her body at the thought of him asleep in the room beyond quelled her jittery nerves and soothed the twisting in her belly.  She was in deep and she knew it.

When she finished in the bathroom, Dawn was waiting for her outside the door.

“Buffy—”

Buffy held up her hand.  “Not now.  Please, Dawnie, not now.”

Dawn caught her bottom lip in her teeth and nodded slowly.  “I just don’t understand.”

“We’ll talk later, okay?  I can’t—”

“Whatever,” Dawn said, and Buffy was surprised at the hot flash of anger in Dawn’s eyes.  “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

Oh, Dawn, Buffy thought, following her sister down the stairs, I hope so, too.

Riley held the door open for them when they reached the foyer, and with a final glance up the stairs, Buffy pulled it shut and locked up.  She felt Dawn’s eyes on her the whole short ride to Sunnydale Memorial and wondered if things could get any more awkward.  Riley filled the silence with bits of conversation and she struggled to settle her nerves long enough to focus on his words.

Riley sighed as he pulled into the parking lot.  “Are you sure you’re okay?  You look like you haven’t slept properly in days.”

Maybe because I haven’t?

“She was up pretty early,” Dawn said, before Buffy could curb her inner sarcasm long enough to form a response.  “Lots of tossing and turning.”

Buffy whipped around to meet Dawn’s raised eyebrow and triumphant smirk.  “I guess neither one of us slept very much,” she said, glancing at Riley, who was nodding as though he understood completely.

“You should let me help.” He stepped out of the SUV to open Dawn’s door and waited for Buffy to make her way around the vehicle.  “Anything you need, just let me know.”

“I’m going inside,” Dawn said, pushing past the two of them and storming away.

Riley watched her go and looked back to Buffy.  “Is she always so cranky in the morning?”

“No, she pretty much reserves that for the days when her mother’s in the hospital.”

So much for curbing the sarcasm.  Riley had the good sense to look apologetic, though he didn’t say the words.

“So, how can I help?” Riley turned to face her, reaching for her hand and smiling when she let him.  “I want to be there for you, Buffy, you just have to tell me what you need from me.”

And isn’t that the million dollar question?

The wriggly little knot of guilt pulsed in her gut as he laced their fingers together.  “Could you help the gang patrol tonight, so I can stay with Mom?”

Riley nodded his head with enthusiasm that didn’t match the slump of his shoulders or slight furrow in his brow. “Yeah, of course, anything.”

He pulled her forward into an embrace, clutching her to him so tightly she felt as if she would break if he so much as squeezed.  Her arms trembled as she circled his waist and her pulse beat loudly in her ears.  Riley’s fingers stroked her back and she fought not to withdraw from his touch, her mind whirling as she struggled to comprehend the sudden, urgent need to keep Riley at a distance.

The feeling ran deeper than the simple desire to keep him from the truth.  No, the road had taken a drastic turn over night and Buffy didn’t recognize the scenery anymore.

“Thank you,” Riley whispered, his breath hot and jarring in her ear. “Thank you for letting me help you.”

As he kissed her goodbye and drove away, one thought repeated itself in Buffy’s mind.

Shouldn’t I be the one thanking him?

When she pushed open the door to her mother’s room a few minutes later, Dawn was in bed with her, picking at the dry-looking bran muffin on the breakfast tray and chattering as only Dawn could.  Though she glanced up at Buffy with slightly narrowed eyes as she came in, all signs of the snarky, suspicious teenager had vanished. 

“Dawn was just telling me that you made her a nice breakfast this morning,” Joyce said, reaching out for a hug.

Joyce’s arm trembled where it lay across Buffy’s shoulders, and that little sign of weakness was enough to make Buffy want to burst into tears.  But if Dawn could do it, so could she, and Buffy pulled her lips into what she hoped was a pleased grin.

“It wasn’t as good as yours,” she said, sitting at the edge of the bed.  “Dawn probably can’t wait until you get back to active breakfast-making duty.”

“No, no it was good!  She tried really hard, Mom,” Dawn said, snuggling into Joyce’s shoulder.  “See?  Buffy’s doing a real good job of looking after me, so you won’t have to worry about me while you work on getting better.”

“Yep, I have it all under control.”

Joyce sighed and smiled tiredly, trailing her palm down Buffy’s back.  “I have the smartest, most wonderful daughters in the world, don’t I?”

Dawn giggled and tossed a piece of muffin at Buffy.  “Sure do!  But you forgot we’re also good looking and honest.

The barb flew over Joyce’s head, and Buffy struggled to keep her smile even.  She had hoped to get through today without dealing with Dawn’s planned confrontation, but that was looking less and less likely. Dawn was as bloodthirsty for secrets as vampires were for, well, blood, and she raised her eyebrows at Buffy as if to remind her that she most certainly had not forgotten.

The long day ahead looked impossibly longer, and Buffy sighed as she laid her head on Joyce’s shoulder.  Buffy might be strong when it came to dealing with demons, but it was going to take a different kind of strength — the kind of strength her mother held, the kind she feared she lacked — to deal with life.

Buffy just hoped she could get them through this in one piece.

*~*

>>To Be Continued in Chapter Nine, Part B

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