CHAPTER FIVE (This fic now has a title – “What If I Loved You?” I’ll be using both it and Challenge 578 for the time being until I can figure out how to change it everywhere)
“Hello? Mrs. Diloran? This is Buffy... Yes... Oh my God. Yes, yes, okay. Yes, thank you very much.”
Buffy put down the phone with a shaking hand. She looked up and met Dawn’s frightened gaze. “It’s Mom. She collapsed at the gallery. They’re loading her into an ambulance and we should meet them at the hospital.” She turned to Riley.
“Riley, can you—”
“Of course. Whatever you need. Hop in the car and we’ll be at the hospital in no time.”
Buffy smiled her thanks as she locked the house up and grabbed a jacket. Dawn was already waiting impatiently on the porch when Buffy and Riley left the house.
True to his word, Riley got them to the Sunnydale Memorial just in time to see Joyce get transferred from the ambulance to a gurney. She waved feebly at Buffy and Dawn, then grimaced and put a hand to her head. They trailed behind her as she was wheeled into the ER, firing questions at the poor orderly, who of course had no idea what to tell them. Joyce was taken directly into an examining room where the door was shut in their faces by a man identifying himself as their mother’s neurologist, Dr. Phillips.
“Mom has her own neurologist? How did we not know that?”
“She probably didn’t want you to worry,” Riley said as he joined them. It had only taken a few minutes for him to park his vehicle, but Buffy had already forgotten how they got to the hospital, and she blinked at him in surprise for a second before catching herself.
“Too late,” Buffy said. “I’m officially terrified.” She gave Riley a sickly smile when he put his arm around her for support. “Thanks for the ride,” she said as he squeezed her shoulders. “I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t been there to drive us.”
“Spike would have given us a ride,” Dawn said with the assurance of youth.
Riley glowered. “Spike had already left when the call came in. He’s of no use to you at all.”
“Well if he did, it was probably because you were there. He was planning to come in and wait with us till Mom got home and then he was going to do Buffy’s patrol for her.” At first oblivious to Buffy’s wide eyes and tight lips, she slowly realized what she’d said and how it was being received by Riley. “Uh, I mean, that’s what he would have done if he didn’t know Buffy had a boyfriend who could... But he does. Know that she has a boyfriend. So he would know that you’d be there to take us wherever we need to go.” She picked up a magazine and pretended to be reading it. “That’s probably why he left when you got there. He knew it was all okay....”
“What the hell is she talking about?” Riley ground out. “It sounds like your family has adopted that worthless vampire.”
“Look, Riley... I know you don’t like Spike. But the thing is, because of what your... people... did to him, he can’t be a vampire anymore, so he’s become sort of, kind of, a... a... honorary Scooby. Like Anya and Tara. You know? He’s just kind of part of the gang now.”
Riley narrowed his eyes. “Tara and Anya are part of ‘the gang’ because they’re dating Willow and Xander. What’s Spike’s excuse?”
“He’s lonely,” she snapped, then sighed and lowered her voice. “And he knows us. All of us. He knows my mom, and he likes her because she’s nice to him. We’ve all known Spike for a long time. And yeah, he was evil most of that time, but he never killed any of us and he helped me and....” She stopped and exhaled loudly. “And Spike and Giles... they kind of bonded. They know a lot of the same English stuff. We’re his... friends. Sort of.”
Dawn rose to defend her favorite vampire. “Didn’t you tell us your nasty boss wanted him back because he was stronger than anything else she tried the chip on? Sounds pretty worthy to me.”
“Dawn you’re hero-worshipping a demon. A demon who, I admit, is – was – really strong, and yes, Maggie had big plans for him. He was the only successful experiment we had. A prototype of a planned—”
“Weapon,” Buffy said flatly. “That’s what he is to you. A weapon you don’t control anymore. No wonder you don’t like him. He got away.”
“Only because he ran to you, and you and your ‘Scoobies’ – and Giles, who should know better – protected him from us.”
“Apparently protection was what he needed,” Dawn sniped from her seat, then ducked back into her magazine.
“And protection is what he has,” Buffy said quietly. “Please remember that, Riley. Spike is just as much under my protection as the humans in this city. And I have enough on my plate right now without having to wonder if you’re going to stake him when I’m busy worrying about my mother.”
“I don’t want to fight with you about this now, Buffy. What’s important is your mother’s health. I’m here for you.”
“And I appreciate that Riley. I really do. Thank you.” Buffy smiled and tried to seem properly appreciative of his presence. “I guess all I need right now is to learn how to be patient. Not really my thing,” she said with a grimace as she remembered her earlier conversation with Spike. “But when I said I was bored, I didn’t really mean I needed something like this.” She rolled her eyes skyward. “Do you hear me, Powers That Be? This is not what I had in mind. I can do bored. I promise.”
“Who are you talking to?” Riley looked around, up at the ceiling and back at Buffy.
“Nobody, apparently.” She sighed as she walked over to sit next to Dawn on the small sofa, without realizing it left nowhere for Riley to sit except in a separate plastic chair. He fidgeted for a moment, then sat down. The uncomfortable silence in the room was eventually interrupted by the arrival of the doctor who’d introduced himself earlier. He was followed by a much younger doctor who smiled nervously at Buffy and Dawn.
“Miss Summers?” Both girls rose to their feet with a “Yes?”
“Oh, yes. The records show that Mrs. Summers has two daughters. Although she never mention....well not important, I guess. Anyway, your mother has a... growth on her brain that has been causing all the headaches. Today, it seems to have caused enough pain to render her temporarily unconscious. I think it is imperative that we remove it as soon as possible. I’d like to schedule that for the morning.”
“Growth?” “On her brain?” Both girls spoke at the same time. Buffy bit her trembling lip. “Do you mean she has... cancer?”
Doctor Phillips shook his head. “I truly – and I am not just saying this to make you feel better – do not believe we will find it to be cancerous. But we won’t know for sure until we get it out and take a look at it. At a minimum, we will relieve the pressure on her brain and eliminate the headaches. And if I am correct, and it is just a benign growth, she will be perfectly fine as soon as she heals from the surgery.” He turned to the man behind him. “Dr. Wilkinson will have some papers for you to sign, although your mother has already signed permission for the surgery—”
“Can we see her?” Buffy interrupted. “Tonight. Can we see her?”
He hesitated, then nodded. “You may. She may not be terribly coherent. She’s under pretty heavy sedation to alleviate the pain. Please do not stay very long. Surgery will be at 8 a.m. and you may, of course, wait in the adjoining area reserved for family members. Dr. Wilkinson will take you to her after the paperwork has been completed.” With a quiet ‘good evening’ he excused himself and left the ER.
Dr. Wilkinson held out his hand to Buffy. “Call me Ben. Please,” he said with a smile. “I’m still getting used to the ‘Dr.’” He shook hands with Dawn and Riley before handing Buffy a clipboard full of forms for her to fill out and sign. She sat down and went through them as quickly as possible while Riley and Ben spoke over Dawn’s head about Joyce and how she was doing.
When she was finished she handed the clipboard to Ben and asked, “Can we see her now?”
He led them to the room where a sleepy Joyce was about to be rolled out of the ER and taken to the surgical floor. Buffy ran to her side, leaning over to hug her, trying to keep her face cheerful. Dawn ran to the other side and began to babble.
“Mom! How do you feel? Why didn’t you tell us you were sick? Do you want me to stay with you?”
Joyce frowned at Dawn in confusion, then looked at Buffy and her expression cleared. “Buffy, there you are. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to worry you. But it will all be fine tomorrow. They’ll take it out and I’ll be fine.”
“Of course you will,” Buffy said in her firmest “I’m the Slayer and this is how it’s going to be” voice. “And Dawn and I will be waiting for you right outside the recovery room when you wake up.”
Joyce glanced at Dawn and frowned again, putting a hand to her head. “I... okay. I think I need to sleep now. I’ll see you... girls... tomorrow.”
At a nod from Ben, Buffy and Dawn kissed their mother’s forehead and followed Ben and Riley out of the room. Ben said he had to get back to work, but would see them the next morning and left. Dawn and Buffy trailed Riley to where he’d parked his SUV, neither girl having much to say on the way home.
There were a few awkward minutes when they reached the Summers home and Buffy wasn’t sure what to do about Riley. Yes, since he’d apologized for grabbing her so roughly, he’d been wonderful to them. Not complaining when he was left in the waiting room while Buffy and Dawn went to see Joyce, or that neither of them talked on the way home, but still.... All Buffy really wanted was some time to process what was happening to her formerly comfortable life.
“I... I’d be happy to stay here tonight, Buffy. If you wanted company.” His tentative offer touched her, and before she could think it through, she said, “Oh that would be nice, Riley. I could probably use a little distraction. I doubt I’m going to sleep much tonight.”
“Oh!” A happy smile broke out across his face. “I assumed you were too sore for... but, hey, if it’s distraction you want, I’m your man.”
“Huh? Wha—? Oh. Oh no. God no!” His happy smile disappeared at Buffy’s obvious horror. “That’s not what I meant by distraction. How can you think... with my mom having brain surgery tomorrow? I just meant someone to talk to.”
“Because I’m nobody,” Dawn sniffed. Buffy startled, having forgotten her younger sister was listening to them.
“That’s not what I... of course you’re somebody, Dawn. I just meant another grown-up... that’s not helping, is it?”
“No. But that’s what happens when you aren’t a real person to anyone. Just the little, non-slayer-powers-having sister. I get it. I’ll just take my unimportant self to my room so the ‘grownups’ can talk about not having sex tonight.” She snatched the house key from Buffy’s hand and marched to the door, giving it its second impressive slam of the evening after she’d entered.
Buffy sighed and rolled her eyes. “Sorry you had to see that, Riley. She’s just—”
“She’s just a teenage girl. And one who’s worried about her mother. It’s okay, Buffy. We really don’t pay much attention to her. In fact, I can hardly remember seeing her last year. I mean, I’m sure I did. And that we spent some time together when I was here, but it’s all pretty fuzzy.” He smiled at Buffy. “I guess I was just so blindsided by her beautiful sister, I didn’t notice her.”
Buffy smiled back weakly. “So, you want to come in for a while? Might be something on TV.”
“Sure. I’d love to. I don’t know if you noticed, but we haven’t seen each other or talked in a couple of days. I know you were avoiding me so I wouldn’t worry, but it just seems odd, you know? How you do so much on your own. You don’t even include all your Scooby friends sometimes. It’s like you’re the only girl in the world and only Giles — and apparently Spike — is allowed in.”
“Riley, you just described a slayer. Well, minus the Spike part, I guess. But that’s pretty much how it is. The Slayer works alone. And you kinda get used to it. Handling things alone, I mean. I can’t just be the Slayer when I’m working and then be somebody else when I’m not.” She walked up the steps and opened the door, looking back at him over her shoulder. “I’m sorry I don’t seem to need you the way you think I should. Being the Slayer’s boyfriend isn’t exactly fun. Guess I should have warned you about that when we met.”
He jumped over the steps to stand beside her. “I can handle it,” he said, taking her hand. “It’s just that, where I’m from a girl like you—”
“Riley, where you’re from there are no girls like me.”
She dropped his hand and entered the house, waiting to see if he was coming in. He sighed and followed her inside, closing the door behind him. Neither of them noticed the old Desoto parked a few houses down the street. Nor the very still black figure leaning against a tree.
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