Flipping her hair over her shoulder as she laughed and joked with her friends, Buffy allowed herself just to enjoy a moment to appreciate what she had. Her life could have been so much worse without her friends; hell, they had proof of that thanks to a certain vengeance demon. There was no escaping that fact, and even if their continued interest in all things Faith was now driving a small wedge between them, she knew the damage wasn’t irreparable.
She strolled slowly through campus grounds back to class with Tara and Willow, listening to their chatter and enjoying the jokes they could all share. She’d called Tru in the hopes of just hearing her voice, and telling her that she was her choice, but she’d had to make do with leaving her a message about going to see her on Saturday. In hindsight it was probably a good thing as Tru wouldn’t have been aware that Buffy had needed to choose. She didn’t know about Faith, and as far as Buffy was concerned that was for the best, for now.
Buffy didn’t want her time with Tru spoiled by jealousy or doubt. They had a good thing; it was promising, and something Buffy felt good about – when she managed to shut everything else out.
Xander had trudged back to work after Buffy had returned to her friends, grumbling about Anya wanting him to buy her shiny things. He’d given Buffy a massive hug before leaving, whispering in her ear that he was there for her no matter her choices. It’d made her smile and look forward to seeing Tru that weekend, rather than looking back over the things Faith had said to her.
She had to think positively, and for herself. Dwelling on the past was no longer an option.
“Oh look, isn’t that Fry? Riley’s friend?” Willow pointed out, nodding her head towards a tall, athletic looking guy as he struggled to keep his books all in his bag as they tumbled to the floor.
“Yeah,” Buffy mumbled, furrowing her brow.
Apparently the past wasn’t quite done being dwelled on as she suddenly realised she hadn’t heard from Riley since their uncomfortable break up. Not that she expected them to be all pally and nice with one another after his reaction, but she hadn’t seen him at all. Anywhere.
“I’ll catch up in a minute,” Buffy told Willow and Tara as she began walking towards Fry.
They nodded and told her not to be late again and she gave them a quick smile and wink. They knew her too well.
“Hey,” Buffy called out to Fry as she got closer.
She waved at him and hoped he remembered her; they’d only met each other a few times. In fact, they hadn’t really ‘met’ at all. She’d bumped into him on occasion when leaving Riley’s room in the morning. He’d caught her wearing nothing but Riley’s shirt one particular morning as she’d padded towards the bathroom. Thankfully he’d chosen not to be crude, or to giggle at her, so she didn’t feel too weird about talking to him now.
“Oh, hey,” he called back, shoving the last fallen book back into his bag. “It’s Buffy isn’t it? Riley’s girlfriend.”
Buffy tried not to pull a yuck-face.
“Yes, and no,” she said. “I’m Buffy but. . .I’m not with Riley now.”
She watched as he continued to struggle with his bag. He jostled and wriggled it, trying to close the zip on a book corner that refused to budge.
“Do you need a hand with that?” she asked, getting aggravated on his behalf.
“No, it’s ok,” he sighed. “All these classes. . .and I have no idea what I’m doing anymore.”
Buffy chuckled and bent to pick up an errant pencil from the ground, handing it to him with a smile.
“I know what you mean,” she agreed. “I thought college was supposed to be fun, dancing, partying and unsatisfying sexual encounters, not hours spent watching people snooze in a stale lecture hall that smells like the wrong end of a camel.”
He laughed and Buffy found herself enjoying the sound of it. She didn’t know him and probably would never talk to him again, but he seemed nice, and it felt good talking to somebody who didn’t know how messed up she was right now. It was almost like when she’d first met Riley, but Fry wasn’t quite as handsome, and he definitely had a dorky edge to him. She wondered if he was the same type of soldier as Riley, or maybe he worked at a desk. She’d seen him in uniform so he had to have some involvement with the Initiative despite his less than Marine-like persona.
“So you’re. . .not with Riley anymore?” he asked, practically stuttering his words as he flung the bag over his shoulder, sending a pair of gym shorts flying from it towards a bench full of students.
Buffy’s eyes went wide, but the shorts fell short of actually attacking somebody so she decided not to point it out to Fry.
“Are you going this way?” she asked him, beginning to walk towards the main building. He nodded and they walked together. “And no, we’re not together anymore. We broke up.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Fry said politely.
“It’s ok, it was just one of those things,” Buffy responded. “I haven’t seen him around lately though, is he ok?”
He gave her a puzzled look and shrugged.
“To be honest, I haven’t seen him around in a while either. He kinda. . .disappeared.”
Buffy stopped walking, causing Fry to stop beside her like a little puppy waiting to be lead.
“Disappeared?” Buffy questioned. Disappeared didn’t sound good. “When did you last see him?”
“He went on leave for a few days maybe two weeks ago,” Fry answered. “But he never came back far as I know.”
Two weeks ago would have been around the time Buffy dumped him, which made Buffy feel somewhat guilty, and worried. He hadn’t seemed himself at all that day, and though she’d avoided going to see him to save herself from further arguments, now she just felt bad about it. She’d hurt him and then just left him to deal with it.
Rubbing at her brow, Buffy tried not to appear as guilty as she felt but there was no escaping the fact she’d been incredibly unfair, and selfish.
“Aren’t his. . .bosses wondering where he is?” she asked, not knowing exactly who was in charge of him and what she should call them.
“Yeah, the Colonel is pissed - excuse my French – and if Riley doesn’t show up soon he’s gonna land his ass in jail – military style.”
Buffy formed a perfect oh shape with her mouth, but no sound came out.
Riley was AWOL, and it was all her fault. He was out there, who knows where, doing God knows what, and after their last encounter - where he seemed all tweaked out on enhancement drugs - it wasn’t a good situation.
“Did he go home?” Buffy asked.
“Not that I know,” Fry replied, shrugging his bag further onto his shoulder and causing a greying sock to dangle out past the broken zipper.
Buffy eyed the sock and tried not to wonder what it smelled like, moving slowly towards the building again with Fry in tow.
“Nobody seems to know where he is. He just didn’t come back.”
There were a hundred questions she wanted to ask, but the Initiative were a suspicious bunch and she didn’t want to imply that maybe it was her fault they’d now lost one of their best soldiers. It might not have been her fault at all; he could have been captured by demons, or worse. There could be a Riley shaped vampire roaming about somewhere she hadn’t been in the last two weeks whilst being preoccupied with Tru and Faith, and now she’d have to go hunting for him slayer-style in order to. . .she didn’t even want to think about it.
“Let me give you my number,” Buffy said hurriedly as they reached the entrance.
His blue eyes lit up and she tried not to feel smug but her cute little half-smile slipped out, making him grin and look excited, like a Labrador.
“I want you to call me when he turns up, but don’t tell him I asked you to do that,” she told him, handing him a piece of paper with her number on it.
“Oh, um, ok,” he said, his chest deflating as he looked about awkwardly.
He seemed unsure, his ego probably a little bruised, so Buffy looked up through her lashes and gave him an even sweeter smile.
“I just wanna make sure he’s ok, so I can move on,” she said, giving him an encouraging look.
“Well I’ll. . .definitely, um, call you,” he stammered, running a hand over his short, sandy brown hair. “And maybe we could go out for a. . .”
“Damn, is that the time?” Buffy said hurriedly, interrupting his flow. “I have class to get to, but we’ll talk, ok? Just let me know when you see Riley.”
Fry opened his mouth to speak but Buffy turned and headed into the building before he could start asking her out again. The last thing she needed was yet another person vying for her affection.
Once in class she worried about Riley. Then out of class she worried about Riley. Eating dinner she worried. . .if it was possible to get any nutrients at all from a few pieces of rubbery chicken and some stringy noodles that looked like they’d been found lying in a puddle somewhere. This wasn’t healthy. Nothing about her life seemed healthy right then. Her mind was muddled, her nerves frayed, and her tummy almost constantly hungry. Even slaying wasn’t as fulfilling as it normally was. Nothing in her life felt comfortable; it was all sharp and edgy, and just waiting to trip her up and laugh at her as she fell face first into some mud.
For a control freak she was frighteningly not in control. All decisions aside, she was still being pulled this way and that, tossed around by her own inability to settle for what she’d had to begin with. She didn’t know which way up she was going to land, but it was time to stop just letting things happen to her.
After finishing her meagre dinner, doing her homework, then changing to patrol, Buffy stowed a few extra stakes inside her jacket and set off to do her duty. She also had somebody to find, and though she had no leads yet, she knew just where to find some. She had to convince Willow not to come with her that night, so it was just her and the encroaching darkness, and a sense of conviction that had her striding towards Spike’s tomb.
She didn’t knock when she reached the heavy door. Instead she yanked it open and stormed inside without warning, almost expecting to find Faith lounging around amongst the shadows, watching the battered old TV that usually flickered in the corner. But Faith wasn’t there – much to her relief – and neither was Spike.
“Damnit,” Buffy muttered, peering around corners and looking in places she’d rather not look. “Now where would a skinny vampire with no life – no pun intended – go when he’s not mooching around me?”
With a quick scratch of her head, Buffy bolted for the door. In her haste she forgot to close it behind her, but she doubted Spike would mind a few families of stray cats crawling into his home in search of comfy looking places to perch their furry behinds.
On second thought. . .
She turned back and slammed the door shut, making sure no cats could enter. He’d only use them to gamble with and she didn’t want that sat on her conscience. The last thing she needed to worry about were pies full of kittens she’d sent to their demise.
Taking a shortcut through the graveyard, making sure to keep her eye open for vampires she could actually stake, Buffy headed towards the dark alleys of Sunnydale’s less desirable side of town.
Faith had once lived nearby, in the rotten motel that Buffy had hated having to go anywhere near. There would always be scantily clad women disappearing into rooms with furtive looking balding men at that particular motel. Dodgy, shifty eyed guys wearing too much gold would loiter against cars that would have lost their wheels in minutes had they been left unattended.
Thinking about it, Buffy wondered how Faith had coped living there for so long. Sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. . .and completely alone in a place most normal people would avoid at all costs. It couldn’t have been nice, and Buffy felt a pang of remorse pinch at her insides. She tried to ignore it. After all, Faith could have asked for help if she’d needed it. She could have asked Giles, or Wesley when he’d arrived.
Huffing out a chuckle, Buffy realised how stupid it was expecting Faith to ask for help if she needed it, especially from the likes of Giles or Wesley. As soon as Wesley had arrived he’d tried to break Faith. He’d done a good job by the end too; deciding to treat her with contempt after the mistakes she’d made, rather than be there for her and help her without her needing to ask. Willow was right, they’d failed Faith. They all had failed her in some way; leaving her where she was, not worrying when she didn’t turn up for patrol or at the library, expecting her to just fit in and do what they asked, when they needed.
Buffy slowed her pace as she drew closer to her destination, remembering how many times she’d wanted to reach her hand out to Faith in the past. But when she had reached, Faith had slapped it away, so surely she couldn’t be blamed for how far off the rails Faith had gone. Surely she’d tried enough.
Had she really tried enough? Had she really been there for Faith at all? Too occupied with Angel, with appearing to be the ‘good one’, with feeling jealous at the attention Faith got, with everything but what she should have been occupied with. Yeah, she’d made her own mistakes, and now she was paying for them. There was no escaping the guilt she felt about the past, and about what she was doing now. It was like walking through tar but wanting to run. She was stuck in the middle of it all, each step sapping all her strength. Each step taking her further and further into the quagmire that was the mess she had made of her life.
As she reached the flickering sign above a murky door, Buffy rolled her shoulders, attempting to relax and find her inner confidence. She couldn’t afford to keep re-hashing everything. She had a job to do.
Pushing open the door, she entered Willy’s bar, quickly scanning the area ahead of her and peering into the dark shadows as she stepped further inside. There were very few people – or demons in fact – sat around the tables clutching drinks, but every one of them looked her way. She could feel their eyes roaming over her, and their defences prickling, muscles twitching in either fear or eagerness to kill, kill, kill the human. The slayer.
She narrowed her eyes and stood as tall as her paltry height allowed, daring any one of them to make a move. It wasn’t the first time she’d been in that bar and she doubted it would be the last. On each visit she’d endured the sudden silence as she walked in, and then the hushed voices and grunts of disapproval as she refused to be intimidated enough to walk back out. There was always a purpose to her visits and today was no different.
Walking purposefully towards the bar, Buffy glanced around again, feeling both relieved and disappointed that Riley wasn’t there. Spike had told her he liked to hang out there sometimes, but finding him right away would obviously have been too easy. There was no sign of him, or any other human. At the end of the bar, bottle of beer in hand, Spike sat. He was perched on a barstool, his eyes turned toward Willy has he pretended they were deep in conversation. She knew they weren’t; they’d both ceased to act normally as soon as she’d walked in. Spike’s eyes had locked with hers before he’d turned away, pretending not to care she was there.
It was all an act. One she could always see right through.
Sliding onto the barstool next to Spike, Buffy gave Willy a nod as they stopped talking. He gave her an uneasy smile and put down the glass he’d been drying, reaching down to a small refrigerator full of bottled beers. Pulling one out, he snapped the top off and pushed it towards her warily.
“I hope there’s not a problem,” he said.
“No problem,” Buffy responded. “Just passing through.”
She took the beer and put it to her lips, her eyes remaining on Willy as she drank some down. He nodded and continued drying glasses, moving further down the bar away from her. He obviously didn’t want to risk being asked questions he had no desire to answer. She let him go, but she’d get to him soon enough.
“Passing through?” Spike asked with a chuckle. “That’s the best you could come up with?”
Buffy turned in her seat towards him, relaxing her shoulders slightly as the chatter in the room rippled back to life.
“I don’t need to explain myself to you, or anyone,” she told Spike.
“But you’re here for a reason,” he supposed cockily. “Unless you’ve hit hard times and you’re out on the prowl, looking for some fun tonight. Did Faith turn you down?”
She shook her head at him in disgust, barely restraining herself from pushing him off his stool to wipe the smug look off his face.
“You know nothing about me and Faith,” she told him.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” he mocked before taking a swig of his beer.
She grabbed the bottle out of his hand and away from his lips, causing a dribble of the golden liquid to trickle down his chin.
“Hey, what’s the big. . .”
“Quit being smart,” she seethed. “Whatever game it is you’re playing with Faith, I don’t wanna hear about it. I don’t care. I don’t care about you, and I don’t care about what you do together.”
She felt her blood boiling with each lie, her fingers gripping the bottle hard as she looked into his steely, stubborn blue eyes. As his lip began to curl into a smirk, she tightened her grip further, shattering the bottle over the top of the bar. All heads turned her way but she kept her eyes on Spike, opening her hand and letting the shards of glass tinkle from her palm to join the rest in the small puddle of beer on the cracked wood of the counter.
Shuffling a little further towards Spike, Buffy narrowed her eyes and spoke quietly.
“I’ll say it one more time, Spike. I don’t care.”
She wondered if he could sniff out lies; if he had the ability to taste the subtle differences of mood in the air. Maybe he could hear her heart as it twitched inside her breast every time she said Faith’s name.
“I’m not here to talk about Faith,” she told him as he began to look uncomfortable under her gaze. “I’m here to ask you something.”
He licked his lips and nodded slowly, flicking his eyes down to the remnants of his bottle.
“Well a guy could get mighty thirsty answering questions, blondie,” he said with a complacent grin, pulling out a packet of cigarettes from inside his jacket and fumbling with a match until he had one lit and dangling from his lips.
With an annoyed sigh Buffy pushed her bottle towards him, refusing to go so far as to actually buy him a drink. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“You’ve got your drink, now talk,” she told him, peering into him with her green eyes.
He took a long draw of his cigarette, blowing out the smoke so that it curled around them both as he looked dismissively at her offering.
“Not that I don’t like having a nice chinwag now and then, but talk about what exactly?” he asked.
She suddenly realised that she hadn’t actually asked him any questions. Feeling a bit silly, she took back the drink he obviously had no interest in and swallowed half of it down, blanching at the bitter aftertaste as it eased over her tongue.
“Don’t try to be smart,” she said harshly. “I wanna know if you’ve seen Riley.”
Dragging his thumbnail over his jaw as he held his cigarette close to his lips, Spike raised an eyebrow.
“Has the little puppy dog escaped his leash?” he asked with a chuckle. “Can’t say I blame him; getting dumped because your girlfriend starts shagging chicks? That would be enough to make any man disappear with his tail between his legs.”
“I didn’t dump him because. . .ugh, I’m not explaining myself to you,” she snapped. “Have you seen him lately or not?”
“Now what in your pretty little head makes you think we bump into each other enough for me to remember when I might have seen him or not? We don’t mix in the same circles, him being the type that likes to kill my sort.”
“Spike, stop stalling,” Buffy interrupted. “You told me he comes in here.”
Spike lowered the cigarette from his mouth, stubbing it out in a nearby ashtray as he took an unnecessary breath.
“Well, you’ve got a point there,” he conceded.
“Tell me, when was the last time you saw him, and where.”
Playing with the box of matches on the bar, turning it in circles with his long fingers, Spike appeared to give it some thought. He nodded towards Willy, jerking his head for him to come over.
“Willy’s probably the man to ask,” he said. “I haven’t seen Riley in over a week, and that wasn’t here. That was out amongst the gravestones as he was skulking around in the dark.”
“Problem?” Willy asked as he stopped opposite them.
“Tall soldier-type with a scowl, when was the last time he was here?” Spike asked him.
Willy glanced down at the debris on the bar in front of Buffy, but said nothing as he furrowed his brow in thought.
“Riley? He was here. . .” he scratched at his stomach under a shirt that looked like it had been scrunched in a corner until he’d pulled it on. “He was here maybe six or seven days ago. Didn’t look good.”
“He didn’t look good how?”
“Well, my guess. . .drugs,” Willy told Buffy. “He seemed pretty wired; all kindsa edgy.”
Buffy felt her stomach drop. He’d acted weird the last time they’d spoken, but she’d put it down to him being upset. Now she wasn’t so sure if that had been the only reason.
“Did he say anything, order anything? Do you have any idea where he went after?” she asked.
“He was talking to some guy – a vampire. They talked a while but he didn’t drink anything. Not from the bar at least,” Willy answered.
“A vampire?” Buffy questioned, practically speaking to herself as she wondered what Riley was up to.
“Yeah, a real handsome one too. All shoulders and tallness, and dark, brooding eyes that. . .”
Spike cleared his throat and gave Willy a funny look.
“Well, you get the idea,” Willy finished, looking slightly embarrassed.
“Must be something in the bloody water,” Spike muttered under his breath as he gave Buffy a sideways glance. “Everybody’s turnin’ fruity.”
Buffy kicked out at him, striking him in the shin with her toes. He yelped and pouted, but Buffy didn’t have time for his particular brand of cute.
“Watch it, momma’s boy,” she warned. “You don’t want me to suddenly remember the stories that Angel told me about you. Fruity doesn’t quite cut is as far as I recall.”
“Hey, steady on, no need to start getting all personal,” he bit, shuffling uncomfortably as he reached for another cigarette. “Why don’t we keep the past where it is.”
Turning back to Willy, Buffy ignored the puff of smoke that temporarily clouded her vision.
“Have you seen the vampire before, or since?” she asked Willy, beginning to get that bad sensation inside her that warned her of future nastiness and all things evil.
“Honestly, I might have seen him before, but when they all dress alike – no offence, Spike – I lose track,” Willy answered.
It wasn’t much help but she didn’t think he was lying. Of course, she could have leapt over the counter to beat him up a little to make sure, but she didn’t want to cause a commotion and end up taking on the rest of the regulars.
“Spike,” she said, turning back to the vampire as Willy sidled away. “You got any ideas? Any leads? Something I can beat out of you?”
“Like I said, twinkie,” Spike began, making Buffy narrow her eyes at him for using a nickname Faith had used on her far too many times, “I haven’t seen Riley around, and you have my word – vampire’s honour – that I’ll let you know if I do.”
“Vampire’s have no honour,” Buffy reminded him, “but thank you. I’m worried about him.”
She looked down at the colourful label of her bottle, peeling at it with her thumbnail as she let the worry sink in. If Riley was in trouble, she’d never forgive herself. Or at least, she’d feel pretty bad about it for a while.
“Yunno, Buffy, you’re the first slayer I’ve ever known to have such a bloody complicated love life,” Spike mused, taking Buffy’s bottle from her hand and drinking down the rest of its contents.
“You’ve never known any slayers but me,” Buffy pointed out. “You killed all the ones you ever met.”
“Well you do have a point there,” he conceded sullenly, pushing the now empty bottle away. “Still, sounds to me like you’ve got yourself all kinds of mixed up on the love front. Not my place to suggest how to solve it of course, but if you wanted to push Faith in my direction to get her outta your hair then I wouldn’t discourage such a gesture.”
Buffy gave him a look that would have had any mortal shrinking away from her.
“Let me make it clear to you, in case you missed it the first time,” she said, lowering her voice almost to a growl. “What she does with her life is none of my business. I don’t care what she does or who she. . .”
She felt her heart squeezing in her chest, causing her lungs to demand more air and her head pound. Her hands were in fists and though she hadn’t meant to get closer to Spike, she was almost sitting on his lap as she brought their faces close together so he would hear every word. But no matter what she said, it wasn’t the truth. He could see that and she knew he could. She could see it in the almost innocent blue of his eyes.
Deciding that she really needed to get out of there before one of them ended up lying on the floor in a pool of their own blood, Buffy sat back again, trying to unclench her fists.
“Just don’t touch her,” she warned, knowing it would contradict everything she’d said. Knowing that he would probably tell Faith just how bothered she was about the prospect of her getting closer to him. “Don’t lay a single, dead finger on her, or you’ll lose it, painfully. And that goes for any and all of your parts that you wanna touch her with. She’s off limits.”
She slid from the stool and made sure she had an unhindered route to the exit before flashing him another warning glare. He opened his mouth to say something smug, but she didn’t give him the chance as she quickly turned and headed for the door. He chuckled under his breath but there was no point in continuing their conversation. The more she spoke to him, the more she’d give away her real feelings, and he didn’t seem to know anything more about Riley so the best option was to leave, and quickly.
As she left the stale air behind her and headed out into the alley, Buffy took a deep breath, every one of her muscles taut and prepared for a fight. It took all her concentration just to let them relax a little as the twinkling lights from Willy’s sign illuminated her path out towards the street.
She didn’t hear the door she’d just left through open, but she heard it thud shut, and once again she felt her body stiffen as she stopped short of leaving the alley; every instinct heightened as the slayer within flickered to life.
“You know she’s crazy about you right?” came Spike’s voice from the doorway.
His feet scuffed along the ground as he drew closer, but Buffy refused to turn around and give him the satisfaction of seeing the desire to know more on her face. She stood with her arms at her side, ready to turn and strike if he got too close.
“She never stops talking about you,” he continued, despite her silence. “The bloody stupid bint; she never stops wishing it could be different.”
“It can’t be different,” Buffy said quietly, hating the weakness in her voice. “We can’t. . .”
She stopped herself before the words came out as nothing but a sob. She refused to cry, especially in front of Spike.
“Just don’t touch her, Spike,” Buffy told him once again as he stopped a few feet behind her.
This time her words were soft; almost pleading in their meekness. She turned her head to look at him, forcing herself to appear strong.
“But look out for her,” she added, barely audible above the slow roll of traffic in the street beyond.
She kept her eyes locked with his for an almost uncomfortable amount of time, hoping he knew what she meant. Hoping he could see the warning as well as the plea. Faith had clearly told him a lot; she obviously trusted him, and Buffy had to trust in that even though she hated the thought of them being around each other.
“I’ve got her back,” he said, his own hushed tone surprising Buffy.
With a nod she turned away and continued out into the street, her jaw clenched against the torrent of feeling that wanted to escape from her.
But she didn’t let it escape; she bottled it up inside and thought about tomorrow. About Tru. About the giggling they’d do, the kissing they’d enjoy, and the stillness she’d find in the midst of the storm inside her.