"Is it me," Riley muttered, "or have all the demons gone on vacation tonight?"
"Maybe they're baseball fans," Forrest suggested. "And they're all sitting in their crypts watching the Dodgers' home opener. I know I wish I was."
Graham blinked at him, deadpan as ever. "You don't have a crypt."
It was good to have the banter again, Riley thought. Good to grin at Forrest every now and then, and get an answering grin back. Good to see that look of permanent worry disappear from Graham's eyes. Whatever trouble he might get into for reinstating the patrols without proper authorization, it would be worth it.
After Walsh and Angleman's deaths and Adam's escape, Riley had phoned Washington for orders and been told to sit tight and do nothing until the new commanders arrived to "assess the situation." Which was all very well, but time had passed and no one arrived, and now Washington wasn't even taking Riley's calls anymore. He was beginning to feel like the leader of a lost platoon in some old World War II movie, which was a stupid way to be feeling in the middle of a college campus in Southern California.
The rest of the guys hated it too. He could see them growing a little more stir crazy with every passing day. Riley scheduled extra workouts for everyone, but it wasn't enough. They were getting harder and harder to deal with, particularly Forrest, who had acquired a habit of sitting around muttering snide comments about Buffy in a voice just loud enough to be audible. In the end, Riley decided it was either patrol or murder, and murder would be more paperwork. So he gave the order and watched morale improve instantly as the men anticipated a chance to kick some Hostile ass.
Problem was, no Hostiles were presenting ass to be kicked.
They were patrolling the jogging paths on the east side of campus. There wasn't much of interest in the area -- just the Chem Lab building, the campus laundromat, a lot of grass, and some shrubbery. A great place to lurk, except that no one was lurking. Well, he and Forrest and Graham were, but that didn't really count.
Riley sighed and admitted defeat. They hadn't seen anything bigger than a squirrel for over two hours, and all the other patrol teams were reporting equal boredom throughout the town.
"Come on, guys, let's call it a night."
"Oh, good," Forrest said. "Maybe I can still catch the game highlights on the late-late news."
"You have a one track mind," Riley told him. "Sports or sex, all you ever talk about."
"Hey, man, that's two tracks."
The shortest way back to Lowell House lay northwest across the lawn, so that was the direction they took, despite Forrest's snarky remarks about what a rebel Riley was for disobeying the "Don't walk on grass" sign. Snarky Forrest was a great improvement over hostile and resentful Forrest, and Riley was so glad to have his best friend back to normal that he didn't even react to the teasing. It did distract him, though, so he didn't notice anything wrong until something yanked his feet right out from under him.
He landed on his back, hard, and felt himself being dragged across the ground. Something had him by the ankles, something really strong. Something that felt like a tentacle. Riley was fairly sure he didn't want to see whatever it was, but he lifted his head and looked anyway.
Not tentacles. Vines. Dozens of them, bursting out of the ground in a slithery, leafy mass, raining bits of dirt in all directions. Some were pencil-thin, some-- like the one that was currently coiling its way up his legs -- were thicker around than his forearm.
Riley fired his taser at the thing, aiming low to the ground where the vines were thickest. They twitched and flailed in response, but maintained the crushing hold on his legs. A few of the skinnier tendrils rose from the ground to grasp at his arms, pulling him flat on his back again. This is so not good.
Something grabbed the back of his collar, and he let out a very non-military yelp before realizing that it was a human hand. From the corner of his eye, he could see Forrest crouching next to him, frantically sawing at some vines with a knife. The crackle of an electrical discharge told him that Graham was firing his own taser somewhere nearby.
None of it was doing any good. He was still being pulled forward, and now the ground beneath him was turning soft and squishy, more like a bog than a lawn. Riley could feel him himself sinking into it, borne down by his own weight and by the inexorable drag of the vines. He could hear Forrest swearing and Graham shouting his name, but he couldn't see them. All he saw was an explosion of green just before the mud swallowed him.
Under normal circumstance, Buffy would've said that a boring patrol was a good patrol. Not now, though. Not with Adam still out there doing whatever it was that psychotically redundant biochemical demonoids liked to do when they were off by themselves. He was no longer draping dissected corpses over the shrubbery, which was a big improvement in Buffy's book, but she was sure he was doing something equally gross and anti-social somewhere. The thought was making her twitchy.
She had followed her usual nightly circuit -- first the Bronze, then the cemeteries, then the UC Sunnydale campus -- and aside from a couple of really lame vampires in the parking lot behind the Bronze, nothing had bothered her. Still, she kept both her guard and her crossbow up as she trudged back toward the dorm. The Hellmouth had this annoying habit of throwing nasty things at her at the tail end of a patrol, just as she was starting to think longingly of bed, hot cocoa, and Mr. Gordo.
Like now. Buffy rounded the corner of the Chem Lab building and stopped, blinking at the surreal scene that was unfolding on the East Lawn. Two guys -- correction, two Initiative commandos, decked out in all their macho camo gear -- down on their hands and knees in the grass, digging up the lawn with their hands.
Let me guess. It's the Initiative Rotary Club and Gardening Society. Buffy took a step forward, then stopped, tucked the crossbow under her arm, dug out her pocket mirror, and gave herself a quick once-over before advancing. She was too far away to make out who the commando-boys were, but there was a decent chance that one of them might be Riley, and the likelihood would approach certainty if she had a mascara smudge on her face or a twig caught in her hair.
By the time she reached the edge of the grass, she had recognized Forrest and Graham. That was awkward. Graham was okay, but she wasn't at all sure about Forrest. Not that she knew him well enough to pass judgement, but in the little time they'd spent together, Buffy had sensed a definite lack of warm fuzzies from him. In fact, cold slimies would be more like it. She considered just walking off -- they still hadn't seemed to notice her presence -- but curiosity was getting the better of her. She cleared her throat to attract their attention and stepped closer.
"Okay, don't tell me. You fought the lawn and the lawn won."
Forrest jerked his head up, and Buffy wished she'd held off on the comedy routine. He looked like a vamp about to go into game face, all snarly and wild-eyed. For a moment she actually thought he might go for her throat. But then the fight seemed to just go out of him. He sat down in the middle of the dug-up dirt and put his head in his hands. Behind him, Graham just knelt there, not moving and not looking at her.
Buffy was beginning to get a queasy feeling about this. "What happened? Where's Riley?" Now that she thought about it, it was worry-making not to see him. Didn't the three of them usually come as a set?
"Riley's gone." It was Graham who spoke. Buffy stared at him, brain refusing to process the information.
"What do you mean, gone? Gone where?"
"Gone as in dead." Graham's voice choked on the last word. He still wouldn't look up at Buffy. "It was some new class of hostile. Never seen anything like it--"
"It was a fucking plant," Forrest growled. "Came out of the ground and dragged him under. One minute he's there, the next he's not, and there's nothing left but grass and dirt, not even a fucking hole in the ground, and what the fuck am I supposed to tell his family?"
"No," Buffy said. It came out as a croak, so she tried again, with more emphasis. "No." There was a rapid, painful pounding in her chest and a dry tightness in her throat. Riley couldn't be dead. Not like that. Not on a boring, ordinary night when the world wasn't even ending. She circled around unsteadily to stand between the two commandos and looked down at the ground where they'd been digging. It was just like Forrest said, nothing but grass and dirt. No great big demon claw marks, no blood. Nothing at all to show that a man had been killed. This was all wrong. It had to be. It just wasn't the way things happened in her life.
She sank to her knees between Forrest and Graham and scooped up a handful of earth. It felt like normal dirt, not evil or demony or anything. Again she told herself that this couldn't be right, that it was all too normal, that if Riley was dead she'd know somehow. She dug up another handful, and another... In a few moments she was up to her elbows in the dirt, digging as frantically as Forrest and Graham had been earlier. They watched her for a minute, then resumed their own efforts.
She wasn't sure how long they kept at it, attacking the earth as if it was a particularly nasty enemy. Forrest even pulled his knife and stabbed the ground over and over, cutting the soil into loose clumps for Graham to brush aside. By the time they stopped, exhausted, they had turned their section of the lawn into a rectangular pit that looked unpleasantly like an open grave. Buffy pushed that image aside as soon as it arose, and struggled to her feet, brushing her hands off on her jeans.
"This is pointless," she muttered.
"Yeah." Forrest's voice was flat. "He's gone."
Buffy ignored him. "Giles. We have to go to Giles. He'll know what to do."
"Hello?" Forrest climbed to his feet. "Did you miss the point here? He's dead. There's nothing to do. You can't help a corpse!"
He was standing way inside her personal space, looming in that emphatic way that all tall guys seemed to have, and that was only cute when Riley did it. Buffy would've happily slugged him, except that even in the bad light, even with her head craned back to look up at him, she could clearly see the grief in his face.
"I don't see a corpse," she told him. "And I'm not writing him off until I see one. Now I'm going to go see some people who can help. You can come along, or you can stay here and finish your gardening. I don't give a shit."
Then she turned on her heels and marched off in the direction of Giles' house, not waiting to see if they would follow.
When the ground had closed above his head, Riley had been a hundred percent sure he was about to die. There had been just enough time to think well, I guess Forrest won't catch the game highlights after all, and to feel really stupid for going out with that for his final thought, before everything went dark. Everything was still dark, but he was pretty sure he wasn't dead. For one thing, he was breathing, though it hurt, and something seemed to be squeezing his chest so he couldn't inhale all the way. For another thing, he was lying on his back on a damp, chilly surface, his mouth tasted of dirt, and his left boot had a pebble in it. And his nose itched. If this was the afterlife, he'd been badly misinformed.
He wasn't alone, either. There was someone crying somewhere nearby, soft little whimpers and moans interspersed with an occasional sniffle. Riley turned his head in the direction of the sound, but it was just as dark there as everywhere else.
"Hello?" he called out, wincing at the scratchiness in his throat. "Anyone there?"
No answer, just more whimpering. Riley wasn't even sure if it was a person or an animal making the noise. He wished he knew where his flashlight was. The darkness was beginning to unnerve him.
He tried to sit up, but couldn't do more than lift his head. This led to a moment of gasping panic before he realized that the same vines that had dragged him under now held him fast. Only his right arm was free -- he remembered Forrest cutting away the vines on that side. Well, at least he could scratch his nose.
With that distraction out of the way, he could concentrate on more important things, like where he was and how he was going to get out. In an ideal world, Forrest and Graham would grab a couple of shovels and dig straight down till they found him, but this was Sunnydale, and he wasn't going to hold his breath waiting for a lucky rescue. He could be miles underground for all he knew. There was a tracer in his watch, but he had no idea how far the signal would carry through the earth. You never knew with Initiative equipment. Sometimes it was like being in Starfleet, other times you wound up using your shiny new rifle as a club while a pissed-off seven-foot demon bore down on you.
They probably thought he was dead anyway. Forrest was probably back at the compound right now, filling out the paperwork, thinking up lies to tell his parents. Would anyone even bother to call Buffy? It hurt to think that he might die here in the dark without her knowing, and that the one time he'd told her that he loved her, it was really someone else. He should've said something the last time he saw her, should've...
Quit sniveling, Finn. This was no time to get maudlin. If nobody was coming for him, then he had to try and get himself out. His radio and taser were gone, off keeping company with his flashlight, no doubt, but there had to be something...
He could get at some of his pockets, if he thrashed around a bit and didn't mind twisting his spine into a pretzel. Amazing, the amount of crap a guy could accumulate without noticing. Screwdriver, pack of gum, spare battery pack for the taser, a plastic laminated card that was probably his student ID, tether line, grappling hook, half a candy bar, some loose change... Aha! Swiss Army knife.
Getting the blade open in pitch dark with just one hand and his teeth proved an interesting challenge, but he managed eventually. Having a weapon in his hand made him feel a lot better, and he tried hard not to think about the fact that he was about to use a three-inch blade to attack a giant demon that had shrugged off multiple taser hits. Here goes nothing. He took as deep a breath as he could manage, and stabbed down at the thick coil of vines around his waist.
There was a sudden burst of rustling noise all around him, like a gust of wind in a forest. The vine he'd stabbed shuddered once, then contracted so abruptly Riley thought his spine would snap. He yelled, jabbed down again with the knife, and found his arm entangled in a knot of thin but unbreakable strands that slithered up his sleeve and around his wrist, squeezing until his hand went numb, and the knife fell from his weakened grip.
The damn vines were everywhere. They snaked up his arms, looped around his throat, slithered in his hair. He cried out, and they went into his mouth, too. He couldn't spit them out, and biting produced no effect except for a trickle of thick, bitter sap on his tongue. One thin tendril wriggled down his throat, making him choke. He struggled, no longer rational, just thrashing around in a blind panic until he couldn't breathe anymore, and the pain and fear both faded to nothingness.II
Giles, bless him, didn't bat an eye when Buffy showed up at his doorstep in the middle of the night with two surly, dirt-covered commandos trailing six paces behind. He nodded politely while Buffy made introductions, ushered everyone into the living room, put a kettle on the stove, and told them to get comfortable while he went upstairs to "make himself presentable." Buffy sat in the recliner and made quick phone calls to Willow and Xander, both of whom said they'd be right over. Graham laid his taser rifle on Giles' kitchen counter and perched on a stool next to it. Forrest paced.
Giles came down again, jammies and robe replaced with trousers and shirt. He was still unshaven and bleary-eyed, and his hair stuck out in all directions in a way that Buffy would've considered highly amusing under different circumstances. Forrest and Graham were giving him dubious looks, clearly doubting his ability to help. Buffy didn't care. All she wanted from those two was a decent description of the thing that got Riley, and if she had to beat it out of them -- well, she was actually kind of in the mood for that. And after that, they could take their toys and go home.
"Riley was taken by a demon," she told Giles. "These two saw it happen. We have to find him. So you get to be Super Librarian and tell us where to go."
"A librarian. That's fucking great." Forrest punctuated the last word with a slam of his fist against the counter. Graham's rifle bounced and slid a couple of inches, and Giles' dishes rattled ominously inside the cabinet. Graham looked as if he was vaguely considering the remote possibility of maybe changing facial expressions one of these days. "Riley gets carried off by the Kudzu from Hell, and you drag us half-way across town to consult the friendly neighborhood librarian? 'Cause it's really important to get all your demons properly catalogued, right? Screw this shit. Come on, Graham, let's go."
Okay, that's it. Buffy pushed herself up out of the recliner, vaulted over the couch, and placed herself squarely in Forrest's path. Grabbing a double handful of his vest, she swung him around and slammed his back into the wall, hard. He tried to push back, but she planted her feet and held him in place.
"Let's get something straight," she growled in her best Cranky Slayer voice. "I didn't drag you anywhere, I let you tag along out of the rapidly-waning kindness of my heart, because you claim to be Riley's friend, and I figured you'd want to help. So now you're going to help by telling Giles everything you saw, 'cause if you don't, I will drag you outside and drop-kick your camouflaged ass from here back to campus. Are we clear on that?"
Forrest glared down at her, his expression an uneasy mix of hostility and fear. After a few seconds, the hostility won.
"You want to step outside?" he sneered. "Fine by me. Just lead the way."
"Guys!" Graham didn't exactly raise his voice, but there was a definite edge in his tone that made both Forrest and Buffy turn their heads to face him. "Can we prioritize here? As in Riley now, macho bullshit posturing later?"
"Prioritize. Right. Sure." Buffy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She could do this. Unclench fists, lower arms, step back. There. No problem.
Forrest squared his shoulders and ran his hands down the front of his vest, trying unsuccessfully to smooth out the creases left by Buffy's grip. "Sorry," he grunted, but he was looking at Graham, not at Buffy. Before Buffy could decide if she should apologize too, and to whom, the teakettle gave its usual pre-boil cough, followed by a piercing whistle.
"Oh, good," Giles said brightly. "Now I can have something to drink while you two decide if you want to kill each other. Do try not to get blood on the books." He went into the kitchen and began rattling cups and saucers around with just a bit more emphasis than Buffy thought strictly necessary.
"Nobody's killing anybody," she said firmly. "Graham and Forrest are just going to sit here and tell you all about what happened. Right, guys?"
"Right." Graham patted the stool next to him and looked at Forrest until Forrest stomped over and sat down.
"Okay, here's the deal. We were just about to head back to Lowell after a patrol..."
Buffy perched on the corner of Giles' desk and tried not to fidget as she listened. It was difficult. Her mind kept conjuring up images of Riley buried alive and suffocating. She wondered if it felt anything like drowning. The thought made her stomach heave violently, and she wrapped her arms around her middle in an effort to keep the evening's pizza and Twinkies down where they belonged.
"...as if the ground turned liquid," Graham was saying. "Riley just sank right down into it. We tried to grab him, but there were vines everywhere."
"I had him by the collar," Forrest muttered, "but the thing smacked me, and I went flying about ten feet. Hell of a punch for a vegetable." He pressed one hand into the small of his back and winced.
"Was there a central trunk?" Giles had a notebook in his lap and was taking notes as he listened, alternating scribbles with sips of tea. "Or visible roots? Did the vines have thorns?"
"No thorns." Forrest held up his ungloved, undamaged hands. "I didn't see any roots or trunk. The leaves were... I don't know, leaf-shaped."
"Long and narrow." Graham hopped off the stool and grabbed a pencil and pad from Giles' desk. "With smooth edges. Thick, like cardboard, but more flexible. Like this." He drew a shape on the pad, tore the page off, and handed it to Giles.
"Thank you." Giles stood, tucking the notebook under his arm. "That should be enough to get us started." He picked up an apparently random pile of books from the floor near the stereo and thumped it down on the counter between Forrest and Graham. "Why don't you gentlemen go through these. See if any of the illustrations look familiar."
"Oh boy, homework." Forrest took a leather-bound volume from the top of the pile and blew on the cover. A thick cloud of dust billowed upward. "And this is going to help Riley how, exactly?"
"We need to identify the demon." Buffy grabbed one of the other books and went to sit on the couch with it. "Find out stuff about it -- like, what's its favorite color, where does it like to hang out, why does it go around messing up lawns and kidnapping perfectly good boyfriends. Oh, and how to kill it. That's always good to know."
"And you actually have that info here?" Forrest leaned over to peer at the titles in the pile. "Shit. This is, like, the reference library of doom."
"So start referencing," Buffy snapped.
They were just getting started when Willow arrived, Tara trailing behind her like an awkward blonde shadow. There was a time-out for explanations and introductions, during which Xander and Anya showed up. By the time everybody was finally settled with a musty book and a place to sit, Buffy was ready to start smashing furniture. This was always her least favorite part. As far as she was concerned, there was a reason why she was called the Slayer and not the Researcher. She had the nagging feeling that she should be out there beating something up. Anything. Maybe she could go look up Spike. He wasn't nearly as much fun to beat up these days, but he was better than nothing, and hey, he might actually know something useful.
She was just about to suggest this plan to the gang when Tara raised her hand.
"Uhm...was it s-something like this, m-m-maybe?"
Buffy, Forrest and Graham all shot out of their seats at once, nearly falling over each other in their rush to get a look over Tara's shoulder. Tara wilted visibly under their stares, hunching her shoulders and sinking lower and lower into the couch until Willow reached over and squeezed her hand.
"Yeah, that's it." Graham gently took the book from Tara and held it up so that both Buffy and Forrest could see. It was open to a full-page engraving of a creature that looked like a cross between a giant squid and a potted plant, all loopy tentacles and wriggly, finger-like leaves. The illustrator had managed to suggest an impression of slitted eyes and a toothy mouth lurking in the tangle without actually drawing those features in.
The creature held several tiny humans in its tentacles, dangling them above the ground like broken dolls. Their limbs were twisted at odd, painful-looking angles, and their faces held expressions of tortured horror rendered in loving black-and-white detail. Buffy's stomach started doing backflips again.
"That's it, all right," Forrest muttered, "but what the hell is it?"
"I don't know." Graham frowned at the page of text opposite the illustration. "I can't even tell what language this is."
"Allow me, please." Giles took the book from him. "Vinranka demon... yes, of course. I should've remembered."
Buffy stared at him. "What, you know this thing?"
"We haven't been formally introduced, if that's what you mean." Giles adjusted his glasses, frowning in concentration. "But I've seen references. A twelfth-century Slayer named Gertrude encountered a similar creature in Bavaria, if I recall correctly..." He paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, somehow not tripping over any of the books that were scattered on the floor, even though his gaze never left the page. "The Vinranka is not, strictly speaking, a plant. Plants need sunlight to survive, while this creature thrives underground in complete darkness. According to this, it ventures to the surface only at night, once every twelve years, in order to-- oh, dear."
"Don't say that!" Buffy clutched the back of the couch with both hands, and fixed Giles with an accusing glare. "I hate it when you say that. It always leads to doom-related events. I can't deal with doom right now, Giles!"
"Buffy." Giles closed his eyes and massaged his temples with one hand. "I'm sorry my choice of exclamations offends you, but please remember that I do not cause the dooms. I merely report them."
"The only thing doomed around here," Forrest snapped, "better be that Vinrotten, or whatever you call it. What's it doing with Riley?"
"It seems..." Giles peered at the book again. "It seems that the Vinranka uses human hosts as, uhm, I suppose you would call them incubators for its, uhm, seedlings."
"Whoa!" Xander, who had appeared to be nodding off over his book through most of the conversation, abruptly perked up. "Seedlings? As in little baby Vinrottens?"
"Vinrankas," Giles corrected patiently. "And yes, by seedlings, I do mean its offspring."
"So it kidnapped Riley to mate with him." Xander folded his arms across his chest and smirked across the table at Willow. "See? It's not just me."
"I don't think there's any actual mating involved," Giles said. "The text is a little unclear here. But there definitely appears to be some sort of parasitic relationship... Apparently the incubation period takes several days. I'm not exactly sure what happens at that point, but I'm sure it's nothing good."
"Is it going to explode out of his chest?" Anya sounded faintly enthused at the prospect. "Xander and I watched a movie where there were people on a spaceship with an alien monster, and one of them fell over while they were eating, and the baby monster explo--"
"It's not going to explode out of anywhere!" Buffy interrupted shrilly. "That was a stupid movie. And what were you and Xander doing watching Alien, anyway? I thought you guys only watched movies where you could have sex afterwards."
Anya nodded cheerfully. "We had sex after than one, too."
"And after Friday the 13th." Xander gave an exhausted sigh. "And The Toxic Avenger. And Arachnophobia. It's hopeless.""Try Watership Down," Giles suggested distractedly.
Forrest shook his head, looking slightly dazed. "Can we get this conversation back on track, please? You said several days -- that means Riley's still alive somewhere, right?"
Giles nodded cautiously. "It does seem likely."
"Does your book say how to kill that thing?"
"Not in so many words, no. But the nocturnal existence suggests it might be vulnerable to bright light. And there are mentions of fire here--"
"Good enough." Forrest clapped Graham on the shoulder. "Let's go." He turned on his heels and headed for the door."
"Wait!" Giles called after him. "We can't just rush out like this, we need to plan a course of a--"
Forrest stopped with one hand on the doorknob, glaring backwards over his shoulder. "We -- as in Graham and I -- are going to go back to the Initiative, and do our planning while we mobilize. You gave us good intel, I appreciate that. But we'll handle things from here." He frowned at Graham, who hadn't moved from where he was standing. "You coming, soldier?"
Graham looked as if he was about to argue, then thought better of it. "Yes, sir," he muttered.
"Wait a minute!" Xander started to stand, looking indignant, but Buffy waved him back.
"Let them go, Xander. We don't need them."
"I'm not so sure--" Giles began, but the door slammed shut with a bang before he could finish. Forrest and Graham were gone.III
Forrest could feel Graham's disapproval hovering over him like a great big thundercloud. Oh, he didn't actually say anything -- Graham had always been good at knowing when to keep his mouth shut -- but over the years Forrest had gotten a lot of practice at reading his friend's silences, and this particular one definitely wasn't friendly. Forrest successfully ignored it for about two minutes before his patience ran out.
"All right," he demanded, "what the fuck's your problem?"
Graham's expression of wide-eyed innocence would've put Riley to shame. "Nothing. I didn't say a word."
"You were thinking really loud."
"Who, me? I'm an enlisted man, we're not allowed to think."
"That's right, you're not. So cut it out."
Another tense minute of silence, and this time it was Graham who spoke first.
"She might be able to help, you know."
"We don't need her fucking help! I don't care who she's supposed to be chosen by, or why, or for what -- we can rescue one of our own without some blonde freshman bimbo telling us what to do! We're not amateurs, dammit!"
"I never said we were." Graham sounded as if he thought he was humoring a crazy person. "I'm just saying that maybe--"
"We are not having this conversation!" Forrest stopped and grabbed Graham's arm, turning the other man around to face him. "You want to go back there and work with her? Go ahead. I guess we know whose side you're on these days, huh?"
"I'm on Riley's side," Graham said quietly.
The words felt like a slap. Forrest released his grip and took a step back, his anger deflating under Graham's steady gaze. "I know you are," he muttered. "We both are. So let's just go get him, all right?"
Graham looked as if he still had his doubts, but he nodded and fell into step at Forrest's side without another word.
It was all Buffy's fault, Forrest thought angrily. Before she showed up, no one in the Initiative ever had any doubts about their ability to get the job done. They had the training, the equipment, the best scientists in the country backing them up. Every man on the squad had believed without question that he was on the winning team. Until she showed up, and suddenly they weren't good enough anymore. Suddenly, it didn't matter how much they busted their asses, how many times they risked their lives, how many Hostiles they took down -- they were just a bunch of second-string losers, because she had been chosen and they hadn't. And no one except Forrest seemed to think it wasn't fair.
Everyone had fallen for her. Maggie Walsh had handed her top-level clearance at the drop of a hat. Riley trailed after her like a puppy, hanging on every word like it was gospel, ready to abandon his work and his friends at a moment's notice every time she whistled. Now Graham, too, thought they couldn't get along without her. They couldn't afford to think like that, not now, not with the fate of the Initiative -- and Riley's life -- hanging by a thread. And it was Forrest's job to make sure they snapped out of it.
He'd never wanted to lead the Initiative. Leadership meant responsibility, and responsibility was Riley's gig, not his. He had always been willing to kick ass on command and leave the paperwork to somebody else. But the job was his now, and while he wasn't ready to consider the possibility that it might be permanent, he wasn't about to goof off at his post, either. The Initiative needed to remember how things used to be not so long ago, before a skinny blonde chick convinced them they were second-rate. Rescuing Riley would be the perfect way to do it, and Forrest would make sure it got done.
Then maybe Riley would remember who his friends were and where his loyalties lay, and start doing his goddamn job again. And then Forrest could go back to being the team goofball and not have to deal with this shit anymore.
Yeah. And maybe pigs would fly.
"Okay, this is the place." Buffy stood at the edge of the lawn, with Xander to her left and Willow and Tara to her right. They had made a supply run back to Stevenson Hall and were all loaded down with hopefully useful stuff. Xander had a flare gun and a box of flares. Willow and Tara lugged backpacks filled with assorted crystals, candles, little jars and pouches, and a number of other items Buffy really didn't want to know about. Buffy herself carried a machete, a flashlight, and a ratty Denver Broncos T-shirt Riley had left under her bed a couple of days before.
She directed the flashlight's beam at the pit she and Forrest and Graham had dug. "Are you sure this will work, Willow?"
"Uh-huh." Willow nodded emphatically as she and Tara unslung their backpacks. "A tracking spell is much easier than a plain location spell, because you're following a trail and not, like, poking around the universe at random going 'Hello? Is there a Riley Finn here?' And it's not that hard to cast. You ready, Tara?"
Tara gave a tight little smile, shuffled her feet, and mumbled something that presumably signified readiness, because Willow led her over to sit on the ground at the pit's edge. Tara arranged six candles in a circle and lit them, while Willow poured a fine, chalky powder from a small jar, using it to draw an intricate maze-like pattern within the circle. When all the powder was gone, she planted a seventh candle in the center, leaving it unlit, and waved her hand vaguely in Buffy's direction. Buffy, well versed in the ways of interpreting Willow's vague gestures, handed over Riley's T-shirt. Willow dropped the shirt next to the candle, linked hands with Tara across the circle, and closed her eyes.
"Hecate, Goddess of the Crossroads, heed our call. Show us the one true path among many. Help us find the one we seek."
The unlit candle at the spell's center flared to life with a pale blue flame. Tara and Willow opened their eyes and lowered their hands, looking slightly dazed.
"See? No problem." Willow looked up at Buffy. "It'll burn brighter if you point it in the right direction."
"Let's hope it doesn't land us in the middle of the Student Center." Buffy picked up the candle and began to turn in a slow circle. When she faced east toward the jogging path, the flame brightened from turquoise to aquamarine and burned a little higher. "Or the Dean's office." She trotted off in the indicated direction. The rest of the gang trailed behind, hauling their assorted stuff.
The candle led them down the path for a bit, then curved southeast in a wide arc that ended in the faculty parking lot at the back of the Chem Lab building. Halfway across the lot, the flame blazed a brilliant near white and rained sparks like a Roman candle.
"Dramatic much?" Buffy muttered, then added a little louder, "I guess this is it."
"Lively little spot." Xander poked his toe into a crack in the paving. "But I would've thought a giant plant would prefer a more rustic location."
"Giles said the Vinranka isn't a plant," Willow reminded him. "Besides, it's underground."
"Which brings me to my next point." Xander gave Buffy a questioning look. "We've got a whole lot of stuff here, but I don't remember packing a jackhammer. Or even a shovel. Do your Slayer powers include tunneling through concrete?"
"It's probably in that Slayer Handbook Giles keeps refusing to show me." Buffy looked from side to side, searching for an access point. A great big trap door marked "This Way to Vinranka Lair" would've been ideal, but she was willing to settle for a conveniently placed manhole cover. Neither of those things presented themselves, but she did spot a sewer grid at the far edge of the lot. Oh, boy, a sewer crawl. Just what I needed tonight. Buffy sighed and held out the candle to Xander. "Hang on to this for a moment, will you?"
Xander scowled unhappily as Buffy tore the grid from the ground. "This is going to be one of those gross, smelly slayings, isn't it?"
"Hey, it can't all be glamour and glitz." Buffy took the candle back from him. "Will, you and Tara go tell Giles exactly where we are, okay? And see if you can help him with figuring out how to get Vinranka seedlings out of people without killing them. The people, I mean. He seemed a little iffy on the subject." Actually, Giles had seemed unsure that it could be done at all, but she wasn't going to dwell on that. Really. She wasn't.
Willow hesitated, visibly torn between wanting to come along and help, and not wanting to wade through a sewer. Finally she nodded, gave a little wave, and jogged away across the lot, with Tara following. Which made for at least two people whose safety Buffy didn't have to worry about for the moment. She breathed a soft sigh of relief and slid down through the grid opening into the sewer.
"Ugh." Xander dropped down beside her, one hand clapped over his mouth and nose. "You'd think I'd develop a tolerance by now. Please tell me we're almost there."
"Sorry. This thing does direction, not distance." Buffy gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder and led the way down the tunnel. "Just take--"
"Yeah, yeah, I know the drill. Take shallow breaths and try not to splash. I got it."
"That's what you said the last time."
"Look, I said I was sorry, okay? I even paid for the dry cleaning."
"Fine, whatever. Just keep that flare gun ready."
They walked about fifty yards, taking shallow breaths and not splashing, before the candle turned into a sparkler again. The glare illuminated the tunnel ahead of them for a few paces, and Buffy saw that they were at a dead end, their way blocked by a wall. Which made no sense, because they were clearly in the right place, all the flying sparks proved it, but there was no sign of Riley or the Vinranka anywhere. Unless they were further down somewhere, in which case the whole thing was screwed, because the Vinranka could've gone to the center of the Earth for all they knew, and Buffy had no idea how to get below the sewers.
Something rustled ahead of her. Buffy took a cautious step forward, squinting through the glare, and realized for the first time that the wall blocking their path was moving.
"When I say 'Now,' fire. After that, use your judgement. Just don't let the place go dark, okay?"
"Judgement. Sure. I have a great track record in that." Xander pointed the flare gun forward and up, and gave Buffy a tight, nervous grin. "Ready when you are."
Buffy tossed Willow's candle aside. It landed with a soft splash and went out, leaving only her flashlight for illumination. In its steady electric glow, she could finally get a clear look at the moving wall, which was not a wall at all, really, but a solid mass of writhing greenery. The rustling sound came from the leaves, which were trembling violently and curling themselves up in an effort to get away from the light. The ones in the middle, where the flashlight beam was brightest, had turned themselves into tight, skinny tubes, and were bristling at her like porcupine quills. Buffy unhooked the machete from her belt and stuck the flashlight in her jacket pocket.
There was a loud pop followed by a blinding burst of light as the first flare went off. Buffy leaped forward, swinging the machete, and felt the blade sink into a tough, spongy mass that parted with a wet sound. Warm sticky liquid splashed Buffy's hands, and she had to yank hard to get the blade free for another blow. A few stray vines reached for her arms, but the light was clearly hurting them. Buffy shook them off easily and swung the machete again.
She got three more blows in before the flare began to flicker out. She started to call to Xander, but he was firing again already, keeping carefully behind her so that the initial flash wouldn't blind her. Buffy gasped out a thanks he almost certainly wouldn't hear, and got on with the hacking and slashing. She was only vaguely aware of the light dimming and brightening every few seconds as Xander kept firing. Bits of chopped-off vine fell squirming to the floor, splattering more sticky goo all over the place. The machete's blade quickly became coated with it, dulling the edge, making it harder and harder to cut through with every blow. Buffy's arms began to ache, but she was definitely making progress.
Until the light went out.
"Xander!" She could hear the vines swishing through the air as they reached for her, revitalized by the darkness. One wrapped around her forearm, trying to shake loose the machete, but Buffy yanked herself free and continued swinging blindly. "What's the hold up?"
"That was the last one!" Xander shouted back.
"A little warning would've been ni--" A ropy coil squeezed her throat, cutting off the rest of the complaint. Buffy tore it off with her left hand, but several more were already grasping at her waist and legs. No matter how many she cut through, more kept coming. Behind her, she could hear Xander gasping and swearing as he struggled. She should've sent him off with Willow and Tara, dammit, and taken the flare gun herself.
The thought gave her an extra surge of energy, and she struck harder and faster as she tried to fight her way over to where she thought Xander was. But the Vinranka was everywhere, and it was all she could do to keep herself from being dragged down. And she wasn't even sure how long she could keep that up. She was beginning to get seriously tired, and the Vinranka seemed ready to keep going forever. Buffy wished she could afford to stop fighting long enough to grab for her flashlight. It would've been nice to be able to see if she was actually doing any damage.
As if in answer to her wish, the tunnel flooded with light. For a moment, Buffy thought Xander had dug out another flare from somewhere, but no, this was much too bright, bright enough so that for a few moments Buffy was as blind as she had been in the darkness. The vines around her legs withdrew, twitching. Buffy blinked rapidly and lifted one hand to shade her watering eyes. She could hear voices all around her, grunts and indistinct shouts. Feet thumped, metal clanged. Something -- no, someone -- bumped heavily against Buffy's side and kept right on going.
"Watch it!" Buffy snapped. Her eyes were slowly adjusting. She could now make out dark blurs in the glare. She blinked some more, and the blurs resolved themselves into human shapes. Initiative guys, at least six or seven of them, maybe more, all wearing dark goggles and swinging big-ass knives, except for two who hung back, wielding spotlights that blazed like twin suns. Behind them, Buffy could see Xander slowly getting to his feet.
The knife wielders attacked the Vinranka, slicing through vines with steady efficiency. Buffy hefted her machete and went to join them. One of the commandos moved over a bit to make room for her. She squinted at him, and recognized Graham. He gave her a quick nod but didn't say a word, just kept cutting. Buffy decided that she, too, could save the conversation for later.
She raised the machete for another swing, and a strong hand caught her wrist in the air and spun her around.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" Forrest demanded in a harsh voice.
"Same thing you are." Buffy twisted her arm from his grip and stepped back, keeping a wary eye on his knife hand. "And it will go a lot faster if we don't stand here arguing."
Forrest's grip on the knife tightened and his arm twitched, but he made no actual move, so Buffy held still too. Several slow, tense seconds ticked by. Finally Forrest shrugged, his face cold and unreadable behind the goggles.
"Just don't get in the way," he said, moved to stand next to Graham, and began slashing at the vines.
Amazing how much faster things went with half a dozen buff guys helping out. Bits of Vinranka flew everywhere. Before long, enough vines had been cut to clear a narrow opening.
"We need to get a light in there." Forrest turned to frown at Buffy. "You're the smallest, can you fit through there?" He sounded as if he thought Buffy had made herself small on purpose just to annoy him. Buffy made herself take a couple of deep, steadying breaths before replying.
"I can fit."
Forrest raised his hand, and one of the guys with the spotlights jogged over, carefully angling the beam toward the ceiling so as not to blind the people around him. At Forrest's command, he handed the light to Buffy, who propped it up on her left shoulder. It was lighter than she expected, plastic rather than metal, and gave off almost no heat. Buffy wished, not for the first time, that there was still a way for her to get along with the Initiative. They really did have the best toys.
"Buffy!" Xander stomped over, looking concerned and eyeing the commandos warily. They ignored him, an awkward civilian non-entity in their macho soldier-boy world. "You're not going in there alone, are you?"
"Riley's in there," she told him.
"Yeah, and the rest of the Vinranka is in there too, and I'm thinking we've had enough trouble with it on this side, thank you."
"I have to go." Buffy gave him an awkward one-armed hug, tightened her grip on the light, and climbed through the gap.
The sewer tunnel went on for another ten feet or so past the point where the Vinranka blocked it, before coming to a real dead end. The air here was stiflingly humid, with a sweet rotting smell, like the rainforest exhibit at the botanical garden. More vines snaked along the floor, converging here and there into tight, oblong clumps of greenery. It took Buffy a second or two to realize that one of the clumps had an arm attached.
"Riley!" Buffy dropped to her knees, set the spotlight down at her side, and began ripping vines out of the way. She knew it was him, would've known it immediately even without the torn uniform sleeve and the bulky Initiative-issue watch. She cleared the vines from his face and chest, and patted his cheek lightly. "Riley? You with me?"
He groaned and moved his hand. Buffy was so relieved, she nearly burst into tears. She contented herself with one loud sniffle and a violent yank at the vines wrapped around his waist. Riley coughed, took a gasping breath, and opened his eyes.
"Hey there." Buffy squeezed his hand and gave him her best reassuring smile. "I've got the cavalry coming right behind me. We'll have you out of here in a sec, okay?"
"Wait..." Riley clutched at her sleeve and struggled to lift his head. "There are o--" He broke off, choking. Buffy barely managed to roll him over and lift him to his knees before he started to vomit.
The Initiative guys picked that moment to finally show up. In typical guy fashion, they milled around looking tough and doing nothing much while Buffy held Riley's head and tried to think of something more supportive to say than "there, there, it's okay." Though Forrest did send somebody running for the med team, which Buffy hoped was standing by somewhere real close.
Eventually Riley stopped heaving and sagged heavily into Buffy's arms. She pulled him down to lie with his head in her lap and brushed strands of sweat-soaked hair away from his face. His skin felt hot beneath her fingers, and his clothes were damp with perspiration. He kept tugging at his collar as if he had trouble breathing.
"Shh. I'll get it." Buffy undid his vest and started to tear at his shirt collar, but he started tugging at her sleeve again.
"Buffy... wait..." He seemed to struggle for each word, taking pained, shallow breaths during the pauses. "Injured..."
"We know you're injured, Ry." Forrest squatted down and began untangling the remaining vines from Riley's legs. "Just hang tight, we'll have you out of here in no time."
"Not me." Riley let go of Buffy's arm to gesture weakly toward the back of the tunnel. "Others..."
"Other what?" Forrest sat back on his heels, frowning. "You saying there's other people here?" He looked up at Graham, who was standing just behind him and a little to the left. "Go check it out."
"Yes, Sir." Graham waved two other commandos over to join him, and they all stomped off to examine the other Vinranka clumps. "Got'em!" he called out a couple of minutes later. "Two civilians, not in great shape, but still breathing."
"Good," Riley muttered groggily, pressed Buffy's hand against his cheek, and closed his eyes.IV
Forrest pushed the computer keyboard back from the edge of his desk, rested his head on his folded arms, and closed his eyes. Just for a minute. He wasn't going to sleep or anything. He was just resting his eyelids for a bit. Really...
It had taken him nearly four hours to fill out the paperwork to cover the night's events. How did Riley put up with this shit day in and day out? Forrest couldn't imagine doing this on a regular basis. Unfortunately, it looked as if he'd have to. Riley and the two rescued civilians were in quarantine, the long-awaited "higher-ups from Washington" were still being awaited, and Forrest was in charge whether he liked it or not.
What a fucking disaster. He couldn't really quarrel with the end result -- they did save Riley, after all, not to mention two other people. The Vinranka had been burned to a nice pile of ashes, and the sewers of Sunnydale were safe for the rats again. Problem was, the Slayer had gotten there first. As usual. Hell, the Initiative almost didn't get there at all. Neither their hand-held scanners nor the base tracking system had been able to pick up Riley's tracer. They had been reduced to wandering the campus in ever-widening circles, hoping to get the signal at close range, when they ran into Buffy's roommate Willow, accompanied by the stuttery blonde girlfriend whose name Forrest couldn't remember. The two girls had stopped and oh-so-helpfully told Forrest's team where to find their missing commander, then ran off again, holding hands. Forrest supposed he should be grateful to them, but it stung.
And now Buffy Summers was in the compound again, which really sucked. Forrest hadn't intended to let her come, but he hadn't counted on Riley. The man had seemed completely out of it when the med team arrived, but as soon as they tried to lift him onto the stretcher, he roused, gripped Buffy's arm with both hands, and wouldn't let go for anything. In the end, Forrest didn't have the heart to forcibly pry him off. So Buffy rode in the ambulance, sitting on the floor next to Riley's stretcher, while Forrest and Graham sat on the cot on the other side. The whole time, Riley kept muttering "I love you, Buffy" over and over every few seconds, and each time Buffy would pat his hand and tell him that he was safe now and that everything was going to be all right. Only Graham's presence kept Forrest from taking a swing at her or at least saying something really nasty.
The phone rang, and Forrest sat up with a start. A glance at the clock showed that he had sat there with his head down for over ten minutes. He glared at the phone, hoping it would shut up and go away, but it didn't, so he gave in and punched the speaker button.
"Agent Gates." Dr. Sophia Wu's normally pleasant voice sounded tinny and artificial over the speaker. "Can you come down to the lab? There's something you need to see."
The note of concern in her voice snapped Forrest into instant, tense wakefulness.
"I'll be right there."
Wu was a tall, elegant-looking Chinese woman in her late thirties, with black-rimmed Catwoman glasses and long, ink-black hair that she wore in a coiled braid. She didn't like to socialize with the soldiers, so Forrest didn't know her very well, but she was one of the Initiative's better doctors, and he'd been happy enough to hand Riley over to her care earlier. He was not happy to see her pacing the lab and fidgeting with her glasses now.
She wasted no time on greetings, giving Forrest only a quick nod before leading him to the back of the room, where several X-ray slides were laid out on a light table.
"Take a look at this, Agent."
Scientists were always doing stuff like that: telling you to look at something and expecting you to know what it meant, when no normal person could possibly be expected to know. Forrest leaned over the table and tried to look intelligent, or at least awake.
"Looks like a chest X-ray." That pretty much blew the wad on his medical knowledge, so he hoped Wu would say something meaningful in response.
"Agent Finn's, to be exact." The doctor took a pencil from her lab coat pocket and used the eraser end to point to a spot near the middle of the slide. There was a small dark spot there on one lung, no bigger than a pea, with a few thin, spidery lines radiating from it.
"Let me guess," Forrest said. "That's not supposed to be there."
"That's the seedling." Dr. Wu looked grim. "Now look at these. This is Felicia Howard's X-ray, and this one is Tom Fischera's."
Howard and Fischera were the two civilians rescued along with Riley. Howard was a sophomore student reported missing by her roommate two days before. Fischera was a cafeteria janitor who didn't show up for work four days ago. The dark spot on Howard's X-ray was about the size of a quarter. The one on Fischera's was bigger than Forrest's fist, the lines black and jagged around it. Forrest's chest ached just looking at the thing.
"Are you telling me it grew that big in four days?"
"I'm afraid so. And that's not all." Wu hesitated, avoiding Forrest's eyes.
Forrest had no patience left for hesitations. "Spit it out, Doc."
"Fischera is dead," Wu said flatly. "He was dead when you brought him in. His body is still functioning -- we think the Vinranka is doing that somehow -- but his brain shows no electrical activity, and his pupils don't respond to light."
It probably said something deeply unflattering about his character, Forrest thought sourly, that his first reaction to hearing of an innocent civilian's death was Fuck, more paperwork. Riley, no doubt, would've been thinking suitably sympathetic thoughts about the dead man and his family.
Riley. Who apparently had less than four days to live himself.
"Can you operate or something? Get that thing out of him... out of them, I mean?"
"Not until we know more. We took blood samples from Finn and Howard, and there are toxins in their systems we're completely unfamiliar with. Putting them under an anesthetic might kill them. Anything might kill them. Howard's been begging for a pain killer since she came in, but I'm afraid to give her as much as an aspirin until the blood work is done."
Forrest squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. The headache that had been threatening for the last couple of hours was finally kicking in full force. "What do you need from me?"
"Authorization to do an autopsy on Fischera." Wu handed him a clipboard with a bunch of forms on it and a ballpoint pen attached by a plastic cord. "If we can determine exactly what the Vinranka did to him, and how, we can stop it from doing it to the others."
"Fine." Forrest signed the forms, yawning as he scribbled. "I want to go see Riley now."
Wu eyed him suspiciously. "When was the last time you slept, Agent Gates?"
"Don't start with me, Doc. I want to see him."
"He's still in quarantine."
"I don't care."
Wu looked as if she was about to argue some more, then shook her head and shrugged. "All right. I'll get a tech to help you suit up. But when you're done, I want you to go straight to your quarters and sleep for at least six hours."
"Right. Whatever." Forrest yawned again and wandered out of the lab.
Fifteen minutes later, decked out like a B-movie Martian in a shiny silver containment suit, Forrest entered the room where Riley was waiting out his mandatory twenty-four hour quarantine. Riley was stretched out on the bed, surrounded by an array of monitors and IV drips, naked except for one of those dorky hospital gowns that laced in the back. Both the gown and the bed sheets were damp with sweat, though Forrest knew that the quarantine quarters were always kept at 68 degrees. A Band-Aid in the crook of his left elbow marked where Dr. Wu had taken her blood samples.
Sitting in a folding chair next to the bed, wearing a containment suit way too big for her, was Buffy Summers.
What the fuck is she doing here? She was supposed to have left as soon as Riley was settled. Forrest had specifically ordered Graham to make sure of it, before he went off to wrestle with the paperwork. Still, this was not the time or place to deal with it. Forrest plastered a cheerful grin on his face and went over to stand next to the bed.
"Riley, my man! I see you finally found a way to lie back and stick me with all the work. Slacker."
Riley twisted his face into a grimace that was probably meant to be a smile. "You know me. Anything to get a day off."
"Well, don't get too used to it, 'cause the labcoats tell me you'll be out of here in no time." Forrest tapped his finger against the IV stand. "What've they got you on here? I thought Wu said you can't have any drugs yet."
"They said it was to rehydrate him," Buffy said. She sounded almost as exhausted as Forrest felt. "From the fever."
"Fever, huh?" Forrest swiped Riley's chart from the foot of the bed and made an exaggerated show of examining it. "What've you got? 105.6? Piker. That's not even the record." Graham had hit 106 for an hour the previous summer, after a purple slimy thing bit him during a patrol.
"I'm working on it." Riley reached over to tug at Forrest's sleeve. "Forrest?"
"Get me some pants, will you? This is embarrassing."
"Sure thing." Forrest snickered. "We'll get your nether regions decently covered. After all, wouldn't want the nurses to fall over laughing, would we?"
Riley made another attempt at a smile. "You're a riot, Gates."
"So I'm told. Look, I gotta go get some sleep before Wu sends her lab goons to strap me to the bed, but I'll send somebody over, okay?" Forrest gently disengaged his sleeve from Riley's grip and looked across the bed at Buffy. "Can I talk to you a moment? Outside?"
"Sure." Buffy stood, and stroked Riley's face with one gloved hand. "Be right back," she whispered, then followed Forrest into the hallway.
"What are you still doing here?" he demanded as soon as the door shut behind them. "You know you're not supposed to hang around."
She shrugged, the motion barely visible beneath the drooping shoulders of her containment suit. "Riley wanted me to stay with him. Graham said it was okay."
Graham was going to be stuck on pre-dawn patrol for the next year. "Agent Miller doesn't get to say what's okay around here. You don't have security clearance anymore, and I'm sure as hell not about to give it to you. You have to go."
She folded her arms across her chest and planted her feet. "You think you can make me leave if I don't want to?"
Forrest matched her stance. "Well, let's see. There's about a hundred of us and one of you, and we've got the guns. You're a college girl, do the math."
Buffy stood still for what seemed like a really long time. It was hard to read her expression under the bulky helmet, but Forrest thought she was weighing her options. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft and very tired.
"Look, Forrest, let's not do this, okay? I don't want to fight, I don't want to prove anything, and I really don't care about security clearances. I just need to be with Riley right now, and I think he needs me too. Now you probably could kick me out of here, but I'm asking you. Please don't."
Oh, now that was just plain unfair. He hadn't expected her to ask nicely.
Forrest let his arms fall to his sides and rested his forehead against his helmet's faceplate. He really didn't want to fight with the Slayer right now. He wanted to sleep. And more than anything else at the moment, he wanted Riley to be all right.
"You can stay in his room, but that's it, understand? You need to go anywhere else, you let me know, and I'll have someone escort you. Stay out of the doctors' way and *don't touch anything*. Got it?"
"Got it. Not a problem."
"Good." Forrest started to turn away, but Buffy stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
"Wait. I-- there's one more thing I need to ask you."
Of course there is. "Now what?"
Buffy hesitated so long that Forrest knew before she said a word that he wasn't going to like it. "Riley's really hurting. He's trying to cover it up, but--"
"No shit, Sherlock." Forrest rolled his eyes. "I'm not blind. The doctors said--"
"I know what the doctors said. And I understand. Well, not really understand, but I'm willing to take their word for it. But... you know my roommate Willow?"
"The redhead? I've seen her around."
"She's a witch. A good witch." Buffy winced and shifted from foot to foot. "Okay, that came out a little Wizard of Oz, but you know what I mean. She's good at what she does. If she could come here--"
"No way." He knew this was going to happen. One little concession, and now she was all over him. First Willow with her New Age Wicca crap, then the rest of her weird friends. They'd be using the compound as their new clubhouse if he didn't put a stop to it right now. "No one else is coming in here."
"Willow could help! Not just Riley, but the others, too. There are spells to dull pain, to make people sleep--"
"Are you listening to me here? Did I use too many long words? I said no. Riley wants you here, fine, you can stay. But there's no way I'm letting your friends run around here sprinkling crystals and fairy dust all over the place. You want to help? Let the doctors do their job."
"This isn't open to discussion." He shrugged her hand off and walked away, pretending not to hear as she yelled his name behind him.V
He had just enough time to get out of the suit and walk to the elevator before the alarm started to blare. By then, Forrest didn't even have the energy to swear; he just rolled his eyes, spun around, and trudged back the way he'd come.
Blinking lights along the ceiling led him to the source of the disturbance: the lower-level corridor where the autopsy rooms were located. Four other soldiers joined him along the way -- the guard-duty team responding to the alarm -- and they all burst into the corridor together.
Dr. Wu was there along with Dr. Ginzberg, a senior scientist who had been heading the research projects since Walsh and Angleman died. They both looked breathless and terrified, as well they might, given the amount of blood on them. Wu's lab coat was soaked in scarlet, as if someone had thrown a bucketful of the stuff at her, and there were liberal spatters on her face and in her hair. Ginzberg wasn't quite as covered, but he looked a lot more upset about it.
"It's not ours," Wu said as soon as Forrest caught her eye. "It's Fischera's."
"What happened?" Forrest demanded.
"That." Ginzberg gestured toward the autopsy room door.
The small glass panel in the door was completely covered over with vines.
"We were starting the autopsy," Wu told him. "I'd just made the first incision when the vines just... burst through his ribcage. I don't know how they could grow so big so quickly. The whole room was filled in seconds..."
"It's magic," a new voice said behind them.
Forrest whirled around. There was Buffy Summers again, showing up where she wasn't supposed to be less than ten minutes after he'd told her not to go anywhere outside of Riley's room. She was still wearing the containment suit, but had ditched the helmet somewhere along the way.
"I heard the alarm," she said in response to Forrest's glare. "Thought you guys might need a hand."
"We've got it covered," Forrest growled, and turned to the soldier standing nearest to him. "Shut off the sprinkler system in this section and drop a couple of incendiary charges into that room. Use the ceiling vent for access."
"Yes, Sir." The man saluted and jogged off, motioning for two of the others to follow.
"See?" Forrest gave Buffy his best sneer. "We do manage to handle a crisis without your help from time to time."
"I'm glad to hear it." She slumped against the wall and rubbed her eyes. For the first time, Forrest noticed how much of a mess she looked -- her hair matted, her face smudged with dirt and Vinranka slime. It occurred to him that under the silver suit, she was probably still wearing the clothes she'd worn during the fight in the sewer. He had cleaned up and changed after returning to the compound, but she wouldn't have had a chance.
"You want to shower or something?" he asked. "If you give me your room key, I'll send somebody to fetch your clothes from Stevenson."
She looked startled, as if she hadn't expected him to be capable of a kindness. "A shower would be great. Thank you."
"Don't mention it." Forrest beckoned to Wu, who had taken off her lab coat and was using a non-bloody corner to wipe off her hands. "Dr. Wu, this is Buffy Summers. Escort her to the showers, then back to Agent Finn's room, and don't let her go anywhere else."
Wu looked puzzled, but shook Buffy's hand politely enough and led her off without asking any questions. Forrest let out a grateful sigh, and went in search of a pair of pants for Riley.
Buffy came out of the shower stall to find her duffel bag waiting on a bench nearby. The clothes inside were neatly folded, and there was an extra pair of shoes in a plastic bag. One of the side pockets had her hairbrush and toothbrush in it, the other held her make-up case and Mr. Gordo. On top of the clothes was a note, written on a folded sheet of Willow's pink writing paper.
"Buffy, The guy who came for this said you might be staying a few days, so I tried to pack everything you'll need. Let me know if I left something out. Love, W. P.S. I hope Riley's OK."
She dressed quickly and was toweling her hair over the sink when Dr. Wu arrived, also freshly showered, to take her back to Riley. This meant putting on the tin-foil spacesuits again. Buffy heroically resisted the urge to tear hers into tiny little pieces.
"Why do we need these things anyway? You think he's going to sneeze little Vinrankas at us if we come in wearing normal clothes?"
"Regulations," Dr. Wu said crisply. "All infected personnel get quarantined for 24 hours. It might seem excessive to you, but we've stopped a lot of problems that way."
"He's not infected. He's..." Buffy hesitated, searching for the right word. "He's possessed."
"Possessed?" Wu stared at her with amused disbelief in her eyes. Buffy felt herself blushing.
"He's got a demon inside him. That's what possessed means, right?"
Wu raised one hand to her face, apparently to adjust her glasses, but Buffy suspected she was just trying to cover up a grin. "So you would suggest... what, an exorcism?"
"It couldn't hurt," Buffy said defensively.
This time Wu didn't bother to hide a smirk. "I'm sure it would provide a nice distraction for Agent Finn. Feel free to sing a chant or shake a rattle over his bed if it'll make you feel better. But you'll wear a containment suit while you do it."
Forrest must've kept his promise, because Riley was wearing a pair of sweatpants when Buffy saw him again. He was lying with his eyes closed, but looked up as soon as she opened the door.
"I'm here." She sat down slowly, gripping the edge of the bed for balance. The problem with the damn suit was that it made her look like the Robot Monster and move with all the grace and coordination of a penguin in stiletto heels. It also made her feel like she was talking to Riley from another room, which really wasn't what either of them needed right now. "How are you feeling?"
"Like there's a baby demon nesting in my left lung." Riley rubbed his chest and winced. "That's just... freaky."
"It'll be okay." Buffy held out her hand, and Riley took it, but all she could feel was a slight crinkling of her glove as he squeezed her fingers.
"This is too ridiculous." Buffy pulled her hand free and stood up, wobbling a little. "I'm taking this thing off."
"Don't--" Riley began, but she was already tugging at her helmet.
"I don't have to follow your dumb commando rules. If Dr. Wu doesn't like it, she can report me to Giles, and he can tell her I don't listen to him, either."
The suit opened in the back where she couldn't reach the fastenings, so she just tore it off and left it on the floor in pieces. Riley watched her with a plaintive expression.
"You do know those things cost ten grand apiece."
"Wow." Buffy sat down again, feeling much better. "That's what, two toilet seats?"
Riley made a sound that started as a laugh and ended as a strained hiss. He clutched at the sheets with shaking hands and breathed slowly through clenched teeth.
"Riley?" Buffy knelt at the side of the bed, alarmed. "What's wrong? Do you need me to get somebody?" There didn't seem to be a phone in the room, but if worse came to worst, she could always yell into the hallway...
"No, it's okay." Riley released his death grip on the sheets and rested one hand lightly on the back of Buffy's neck. "It's just... I guess laughing is a bad idea right now."
"I'll hold off on the jokes, then." Buffy rested her head against Riley's pillow and stroked his hair while she spoke. "You'll be all right. You've got a whole lot of people working for you."
"I've got you. That's what counts." Riley caught Buffy's hand in his and held it against his cheek. She did her best not to look appalled at how hot his skin was, and how weak his grip. "I love you, Buffy."
She snuggled in closer to kiss his cheek. "Try and get some rest. You need to keep your strength up."
"I'll sleep if you sleep."
"Deal." Buffy climbed back into her chair, stretched her legs out and closed her eyes, then opened them again just a little so she could peek at Riley through her lashes. He lay still for a while, and she had the sense he was watching her too. After a couple of minutes, when she didn't move or speak, his fists clenched and his breathing grew ragged again.
Neither one of them got much sleep.
Dr. Wu had a bit of a hissy fit when she found out about the torn suit and the quarantine breach, but there wasn't much to be done about it by then. Buffy firmly refused to have her chest X-rayed or her blood drawn, so the doctor had to be content with taking her temperature and blood pressure, along with her word that she had no symptoms. Buffy thought the whole thing was stupid -- if Riley had been contagious, both she and the rescue team would've been infected already -- but no one seemed interested in her opinion on the subject.
The nurses and orderlies were nice to her, wheeling in a rollaway bed when they realized she was staying for the long haul, bringing her a breakfast tray at the same time they brought one for Riley. The food was basic hospital crap -- mushy scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice, the inevitable plastic cup of green jello. Buffy was so hungry by then, she practically inhaled the whole thing. Riley choked down two forkfuls of eggs with visible effort before pushing the tray away.
"Remember how laughing was a bad idea?" he said in response to Buffy's disapproving look. "Eating's not a good idea, either."
"At least drink something." Buffy tried to hand him the glass of orange juice, but he pushed her hand away.
"Later. I promise." He let his head fall back on the pillow. "Talk to me for a while, okay?"
"Anything... tell me how you got to be the Slayer."
So she told him about Merrick, and the gym-burning fiasco at Hemery, then about her arrival in Sunnydale, and the Harvest. Not her idea of pleasant conversation, but she did her best to concentrate on the funny bits. It served to keep Riley distracted, which was the main point.
"Wow," he sighed when she finished. "You were so young..."
"As opposed to the decrepit old lady I am now?"
"You know what I mean. When I was fifteen, my big concern was making the basketball team."
"Good," Buffy said emphatically. "Trust me, my high school career isn't something for other people to aspire to. Did I ever tell you about the time I ran for Homecoming Queen?"
She was just getting to the really good parts of the story when Wu came in again, flanked by a couple of orderlies, to take Riley away for "tests." Buffy wanted to come along, but Wu started citing regulations and security clearances and all that other military stuff. Buffy tried to follow anyway, and found her way blocked by two polite, big-shouldered young men with taser rifles. They must've been stationed outside the door sometime while she slept. Buffy was reasonably sure she could take them, even in her current frazzled state, but there would probably be reinforcements, and she really didn't want an all-out feud with the Initiative. Yet. So she went back to her chair, and waited, and told herself over and over again that Wu and her cronies were working to help Riley, not hurt him, and that hovering over their shoulders would not make them work better.
After fifteen minutes of being quiet and reasonable, she had to either do something or go bonkers. Buffy marched over to the door and confronted the guard on the right, who looked marginally friendlier than the one on the left, and whom she vaguely remembered seeing at some of the Lowell House parties.
"Hi, uhm... Mason, right? I was wondering -- you think maybe I could make a phone call?"
There were a few seconds of foot shuffling and hesitation and questioning glances going back and forth. Then Mason shrugged, pulled a cell phone from his thigh pocket, and handed it to her. He smiled when she thanked him, but wouldn't let her close the door.
"We have to listen," he explained apologetically, "so you don't say anything classified."
"Whatever." Buffy didn't have the energy to argue the point. She retreated to the back of the room and dialed Giles' number.
"Buffy." Giles managed to sound happy and reproachful all at once, despite being interrupted by frequent bursts of static. "We were worried about you. Are you all right? Are you still at the Initiative? How is Riley?"
"Sorry, more or less, yes, not good." Buffy paced the narrow space between the bed and the wall. "Any luck finding a Vinranka cure?"
"Nothing yet, I'm afraid. I've got the entire group here, going through the books, but it's a slow process. None of the source material is in English, and the only person besides me who reads Old German is Tara, God knows where she picked it up, and-- never mind, that's not important. We're working on it."
"I've been thinking." Buffy paused to wait out another static attack. "Would an exorcism work? I mean, it's kind of like he's possessed, right?"
"Possessed?" Giles seemed startled by the idea. "Well, I suppose in the sense of being inhabited by a demon, yes, you could look at it that way, but... possession is a spiritual condition, not a physical one. Exorcisms are designed to free the soul, not the body. It's true physical symptoms are frequently involved, but--"
"Never mind." Buffy felt her whole body slumping in disappointment. "It was just a stupid thought."
"No, it's an interes-- Xander, that book is six hundred years old, please try to ensure it survives the weekend -- it's an interesting notion, Buffy. Worth pursuing. Perhaps in combination with-- yes, what is it? One moment, Buffy, Tara needs help with a translation."
"Never mind, I'll leave you guys to it." Buffy disconnected the phone and handed it back to Mason, who gave her another smile and stepped out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
Nothing left to do but wait. Buffy paced circles around the room. She stretched. She went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. She practiced her kicks. She did some push-ups, then some stomach crunches, then some more push-ups. She was looking up at the ceiling and wondering if the fluorescent light strip was sturdy enough to use as a chin-up bar, when Wu and her team wheeled Riley back in.
"Hey, Buffy." Riley lifted one hand about two inches by way of greeting. He looked awful, paler than your average vampire, and utterly exhausted. Buffy made herself smile and wave.
"Hey yourself. How did the tests come out?"
"Too early to say." Wu stood aside while the orderlies hoisted Riley back into bed, then stepped in to reconnect the IV and the monitors. "Right now, he needs rest." She adjusted her glasses and glared at Riley over the rims. "And food."
"Not hungry," Riley muttered sullenly. Wu's glare intensified.
"You get a choice, Agent. Turkey and mashed potatoes, or a tube up your nose. Lunch is in an hour, so I suggest you decide quickly." She spun about and marched out of the room, the orderlies trailing behind like a lab-coated honor guard. Buffy scowled at their retreating backs until the door slammed shut.
"Wow. Someone woke up on the bitchy side of the bed this morning."
"She's a good doctor," Riley said.
"She was kidding, right? About the tube up your nose? That's just gross doctor-humor, right?"
Riley closed his eyes and sighed. "You haven't spent a lot of time in hospitals, have you?"
The end of quarantine apparently signaled the start of visiting hours. Forrest and Graham came, lugging Riley's boom box, a stack of CDs, and five pairs of clean sweats.
"Hope you live to remember this, man," Graham told him, "because that's the first and last time I'm ever doing your laundry."
A few of the other commando guys dropped in to deliver some awkward get well wishes. None of them said much or stayed long. Lunch arrived at the end of the hour, as promised, and Riley poked at it with a fork for a couple of seconds before giving up the effort. Twenty minutes later Buffy discovered that Dr. Wu had not, in fact, been kidding about her earlier threat. There are some things even a Slayer is not prepared to handle. She fled to the bathroom, and didn't come out again until a nurse told her it was safe.
"I don't know what you're looking so green about," Riley complained. "It wasn't your nose."
Riley's capacity to make jokes diminished visibly as the day wore on. All of him diminished. His skin grew so pale it was almost translucent, except for the bruise-colored shadows under his eyes. The hospital gown hung loosely off his shoulders, as if he was shrinking inside it. Buffy couldn't help but wonder how much of this was the Vinranka's doing, and how much was being caused by the endless parade of doctors and nurses who kept marching in and out of the room at regular intervals, always supervised by Dr. Wu.
Riley -- and Forrest, and Graham, and every other commando who was willing to talk to her -- insisted that these were great doctors, brilliant, the best in the country. Buffy had to believe it was true. But to her it looked as if they all had skipped the Bedside Manner class at med school. They treated Riley like a particularly fascinating lab specimen, poking and prodding with impersonal efficiency as they took yet another blood sample or hooked up yet another tube. At first, Riley responded with jokes and snide comments, but by the end of the day he had lapsed into resigned silence, not raising even a token protest when they took his sweatpants away to attach a catheter. Buffy had to fight hard against the urge to start punching people out at random.
In the evening, she borrowed a cell phone from the latest pair of polite, big-shouldered young men at the door -- they seemed to rotate every few hours -- and called Giles again.
"Still working on it," he told her in an overly gentle tone that was probably supposed to be reassuring but wasn't. "There doesn't actually appear to be a cure, so we're trying to invent one. I think it can be done, but it's a very delicate task, to design a new spell from scratch. The smallest miscalculation can be disastrous. We need time to do it right."
"Do we have time?"
Giles hesitated just long enough for Buffy to start feeling sick before he answered. "According to the books, the incubation period for the seedlings is four to five days."
It was a little over a day since Riley had been taken. How long had the seedling been inside him? Buffy suddenly felt glad that the room didn't have a clock. Even without one, she was acutely aware of seconds ticking away, valuable time passing while she was distracting Giles from his work. She was about to apologize and hang up when he spoke again.
"Uhm, Buffy... I know this is a bit much for you to deal with right now, but it appears that Adam was out and about last night."
"Oh God..." Buffy let her head fall back to rest against the wall. "What did he do?"
"There was a piece on the news -- two bodies found just outside of town. A man and a woman. It seems they've been dissected, just like that demon you found the last time."
And like that little boy. Neither one of them actually said it, but Buffy was sure Giles was thinking it too.
"All right, Giles. I'll deal with it. You go back to your spell design." She switched off the phone and went out into the hallway to return it to the guards. "Listen, guys, I need to speak to For-- to Agent Gates. Can you call him up on this thing or beep him or something?"
Forrest didn't answer his phone, so they beeped him. Five minutes later he arrived, and once again Buffy found herself bracing against the wave of anti-Buffyness that seemed to precede him everywhere he went. The first words out of his mouth were "What do you want, I'm busy?"
Buffy clenched her fists until her hands felt numb. Don't piss him off, don't piss him off, don't piss him off... Aside from the fact that she needed his cooperation now, he was Riley's best friend. If-- when --Riley was better and life got back to normal, she'd have to get along with him. Smashing his face in would not help.
"I have to leave for a while," she told him. "I wish I could stay here 24/7, but I can't. If I go, will you let me come back and see Riley later?"
She watched him bite back what must've been an automatic refusal and wondered if he, too, was thinking that he had to get along with her for Riley's sake. He looked at her, then through the door at Riley, then back at her again.
"If he's awake and wants to see you, you can." He sounded as if he was choking on the words. "I'll give the guards instructions."
"Thank you," Buffy said sincerely, and went back to Riley's bedside. He looked up at her with tired, unfocused eyes, and she wasn't even sure he knew who she was anymore, but she couldn't just walk out without reassuring him.
"Riley?" She brushed her fingers lightly across his cheek. His skin felt sticky and appallingly hot. "Listen, I have to go take care of some stuff, but I'll be back later, okay?"
"Okay..." He turned his head a little to kiss the back of her hand. "Don't be long."
"I won't be."
She pressed one finger to his lips. "Shh. Try to get some rest, all right? And be nice to the doctors."
Forrest was waiting for her in the corridor when she came back out. "I'll take you to the elevator," he growled and marched off so fast, she had to jog to keep up.
Buffy fell into step beside him, watching his face as they walked. He seemed even angrier than he'd been a couple of minutes before when he first showed up. She could see the tension in his neck and shoulders, in the tight clench of his jaw. She could practically hear his teeth grinding. What was his problem anyway?
She waited until they turned a corner and were out of sight and earshot of Riley's guards before she blurted the question at him.
"Why do you hate me?"
He didn't seem especially surprised by the question. No startled looks, no protestations. No answer, either, until they were almost at the next corner.
"I don't hate you. Don't like you. Don't trust you. But I don't hate you."
"What's the problem, exactly? What did I ever do to you?"
"It's not what you did to me." He walked a few more paces, then stopped and spun around to face her. "Just tell me one thing -- would it fucking kill you to say it back to him, just once?"
"I--" That was so out of left field, Buffy didn't know where to start. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do."
And she did. But it wasn't a question she was ready to answer, particularly not to Forrest Gates and his attitude. "Is that what got the poker up your ass? It's none of your goddamn business."
"Tough." He glared down at her, once again using his height to unfair advantage. "When you're best friends with somebody, you care about stuff that's not your business. Ever since you two got together, Riley's thought you walk on water. This past day, he's said he loves you more times than I can count, and each time you change the subject. Don't tell me I'm not supposed to give a shit. You think he hasn't noticed?"
"I don't know if he's noticed or not!" Buffy snapped. "That's the point. Call me old-fashioned, but I think 'I love you' comes across a lot better when the guy isn't trying to break the Initiative's high-temperature record."
"Bullshit! He could be dead before the next time you see him. He could've died any time today. What would it cost you to say it, just to make him feel better?" Forrest's mouth curled into a sneer. "You can always take it back if he lives."
She almost hit him right then. The only thing that stopped her was that she didn't trust herself to pull the punch. But she wanted to hurt him more than she'd ever wanted to hurt anything that wasn't a demon, and certain things were clicking into place in her head, and the end result was her mouth kicking in before her brain could slam on the brakes.
"Why don't you tell him?" she challenged.
He looked as if she had hit him. Then he looked as if he might take a swing at her. Then he got a grip, and his face went cold and hard.
"The man's not talking to me," he said, and turned away.
They didn't say another word, didn't as much as look at each other all the way to the elevator.VI
Felicia Howard died early the next morning. Forrest came down to the compound before breakfast to sign Wu's autopsy authorization, and tried to feel something more than sick relief that he was signing it for a stranger and not for Riley. A few hours later, as he was filling out the next day's patrol schedule, Wu came to see him again, and she actually looked pleased.
"I think we finally have results," she announced.
Forrest pushed his chair back from the desk, trying and failing to fight down the surge of hope at the words. "Define 'results.' "
"Dr. Ginzberg and I managed to complete the autopsy this time." Wu handed him a folder, which he barely glanced at. "We installed halogen spotlights in the lab to make sure the seedling stayed contained, and it worked. We were able to remove it and dissect it. We think it's some species of arthropod, possibly even a trilobite that somehow avoided extinction. Dr. Ginzberg has been looking through fossil records, searching for similarities, but nothing's come up so far."
"I don't give a shit what it is." Forrest tossed the folder onto the desk. "Is there a cure for it?"
"Not..." Wu hesitated for a few seconds. "Not exactly."
Forrest's fragile new optimism crashed and burned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, surgery is not an option." Wu tapped the report folder as if she actually expected Forrest to pick it up and look through it for explanations. "The blood work isn't quite done yet, but based on what we have so far, I believe that any attempt to put Finn under an anaesthetic, even a local one, would be fatal. The Vinranka toxin is specifically designed to keep the host awake and conscious. Dr. Ginzberg thinks the seedlings feed on the natural opoids produced by the human body to fight pain. That means we can't use morphine or any other opiate painkillers -- they would actually speed the seedling's growth."
"That's your idea of results?" Forrest didn't even bother to try to keep his voice down. "A list of stuff you can't do? What exactly is the point of all this, then?"
Wu matched his glare, obviously unimpressed. "I think we have an antitoxin."
"It's not exactly something we can test, is it?" Wu snapped irritably. "The lab tests were promising. How it'll work on an actual patient, I can't say. But at this point, we might as well try it. It can't possibly make him worse."
"Fuck." Forrest leaned forward and put his head in his hands. Wu's cool, impersonal calm made him want to throw things and kick the furniture. He tried to think of it as a reassuring trait, a sign of professionalism and competence on her part, but he couldn't shake the feeling that she was a lot more interested in Riley Finn the research opportunity than in Riley Finn the dying patient. "All right. Do whatever you need."
"Oh, I've already started the treatment." Wu sounded mildly surprised that Forrest might've thought otherwise. "I'm just giving you an update."
"Gee, thanks." Forrest rubbed one hand across his face. "Is he awake? Can I see him now?"
Wu shrugged. "Be my guest."
Whatever Wu had done to Riley, it hadn't had a visible effect yet. He looked no different than he had before: pale and still, like a bad wax effigy of himself. The heart monitor's beep echoed through the room, unnaturally loud, and the air smelled of sweat and antiseptic solution. Riley stirred a little when Forrest entered, but didn't speak or lift his head. Forrest wondered if he was disappointed to see him instead of Buffy, but refused to dwell on the thought. He put on his best grin, an expression that was beginning to feel rather brittle around the edges.
"Hey, Ry, how's it going? No, don't try to tell me, I can figure it out myself. Wu been sticking more needles into you?" He paused, waiting for Riley's nod. "Yeah, that's what I thought. It's actually supposed to do you some good this time, though, so keep your fingers crossed." He sat in the folding chair next to the bed, and nudged the boom box with his toe. "You want some music on, man? That beeping is like Chinese water torture."
Riley made a noise that sounded vaguely affirmative, so Forrest popped a Counting Crows CD into the box, adjusting the volume so that he could still talk over it without shouting.
"Man, I can't wait to have you back on your feet, just so I don't have to run this place anymore. Not that I'm not doing a brilliant job, mind you, but I swear, I didn't know there was so much paperwork in the whole world."
He spent about twenty minutes giving Riley the run-down on daily Initiative business, followed by some general campus gossip. He had no idea if Riley was listening, if he was even vaguely interested in any of it or if he was wishing for Forrest to shut up and go away. But if he had been in Riley's place, he'd have wanted people to talk to him, and he figured Riley might feel the same. So he sat and talked until a commotion outside the door attracted his attention.
"Hold on a sec," he told Riley, got up, and went to investigate the disturbance.
Outside, Davidson and Clarke were having an argument with Buffy Summers, who stood between them in a defensive stance, clutching a small box against her chest as if she was expecting them to try and take it away from her. As soon as Forrest flung the door open, they all started talking to him at once.
"Sir, she refuses to--"
"Forrest! Will you please tell them--"
"Sir, we were just trying to--"
"All of you, shut up!" Forrest stepped out into the hallway, shut the door behind him, and leaned his back against it. To his considerable surprise, they all did shut up, even Buffy, and fixed him with anxious looks. "All right, now tell me what's going on, one at a time." He pointed at Buffy. "You first."
She put one hand on her hip and held out the box to him with the other. "Call off the goon squad, Forrest. All I did was bring this for Riley, and they're acting like I'm trying to smuggle in a bomb."
"Sir," Davidson broke in, "Dr. Wu specifically said no contaminants of any kind--"
"It's not a contaminant!" Buffy... well... whined. Forrest suspected that he could shorten his life span by a few decades by telling the Slayer she whined, but there was really no other word for it. "It's just a candle, okay? One goddamn candle! What do you think it's going to do?" She held the box up higher, practically shoving it in Forrest's face.
The box had no lid and appeared to be filled with tissue paper. Forrest lifted a couple of layers out of the way, and saw that beneath them there was, indeed, a candle, pale green in color, with a faint spicy scent. It was about as thick as his wrist and covered from base to wick with dense, small writing in an alphabet he didn't recognize, painted on with some thick black substance. Forrest peered at it suspiciously.
"What's it for?"
"Willow and Tara made it," Buffy said. "It has a sleep spell on it. I figured, since regular drugs are out..." She trailed off, looking faintly embarrassed. "Look, I know you guys don't believe in this stuff, but I'm telling you it works. You said you can't let Willow come here, so fine, don't. But don't tell me a candle is going to cause a security breach for you, because I'm not buying that."
"A sleep spell." Forrest plucked the candle out of the box, ignoring Buffy's yelped admonition to be careful and not smudge the writing, and turned it over in his hand a couple of times. "You're right. I don't believe in this stuff."
"Does it matter?" Buffy rolled her eyes. "We put it by his bed, we light it, worst thing that happens is I look like an idiot. Where's the bad?"
Put that way, it was kind of hard to argue. Besides, it would get some of that medicine smell out of the air. Forrest shrugged and opened the door again. "All right, go ahead."
Riley actually looked up and smiled a little when Buffy came in. She bent over and planted a kiss on his forehead.
"Hey there. Got a care package for you from Will and Tara." She rooted around inside the box some more, dropping bits of tissue on the floor, and produced a frosted pink candleholder with little red hearts around the edge, absolutely the girliest thing ever to appear inside the Initiative compound. Forrest bit the inside of his cheeks and made a mental note to give Riley a hard time about it when he was better.
Buffy took the candle from Forrest, fit it into the holder, and put it on the bedside table.
"Got a light?"
"What, you didn't bring a little pink Bic to go with it?" Forrest patted down his pockets, finally handing her a matchbook from the Bronze. She made a face at him before leaning over to light the wick, then stepped back with an anxious look.
"Okay, you're supposed to think positive thoughts now. Tara says good vibes are important."
"Vibes. Right." Forrest looked up at the ceiling and thought about how nice it would be if Buffy Summers went off to fight demons in... oh... Tasmania. That was a positive thought, wasn't it? No violence involved, no ill wishing. Tasmania was supposed to be a nice place, right? Except for the devils, but a Slayer ought to be able to handle those... She could go and be happy there, he didn't mind her being happy as long as it was far away. She'd go, and he'd stay, and Riley would get over it, and then everybody would be happy...
Someone was smacking his face, not hard, but enough to be annoying. Forrest blinked, shook his head, and found himself looking up at Buffy Summers' worried face. That made no sense. He blinked again, trying to concentrate. Either Buffy had grown a couple of feet in the last five seconds, or...
He was sitting on the floor in the hallway, his back against the wall. Buffy was bending over him, with Davidson and Clarke fidgeting behind her. How the fuck did that come about? He'd been standing next to Riley, thinking positive thoughts...
"You fell asleep on your feet." Buffy held out a hand to help him up. "Gotta tell Willow -- next time, put a time delay on the spell, so that people who *don't* want an instant nap can get out of the room."
"Whoa!" Forrest climbed to his feet, pointedly ignoring Buffy's hand. "You telling me that damn candle knocked me out?"
Buffy nodded. "And let me just state for the record that I think I've moved cars that weighed less than you."
The mental image of his own sleeping self being carried out of the room by Buffy was just too sickening to contemplate. Was it his imagination, or was Clarke suppressing a smirk? Forrest spared him a quick warning glare before returning his attention to Buffy.
"Why weren't you affected?"
"I was. I shook it off."
She shook it off. Just like that. Naturally. Forrest might've had a lot more to say on the subject, but he had a more pressing concern.
Buffy gestured toward the door, smiling. "Sleeping like a baby."
Forrest peered through the glass panel, cupping his hands on either side of his face to keep out the glare. It still wasn't the clearest view, but he could see that Riley's eyes were closed, his breathing even, his face relaxed into a peaceful expression. The music on the boom box was faintly audible when Forrest put his forehead against the glass, but Riley seemed undisturbed by the noise. It was the best thing Forrest had seen in days. For the first time ever, he found himself feeling sincerely, unambiguously grateful to Buffy Summers. Not that he was about to say it or anything.
All the monitors at the back of the room went crazy at once, an explosion of high-pitched electronic screams and spiking displays. Riley's body twitched and thrashed, sending the covers to the floor, while his hands clawed at the sheets. Forrest reacted instantly, without thinking. He was through the door and three paces into the room before he realized his mistake.
The sleepiness enfolded him like a warm, soft comforter. His eyelids drooped, and his mouth opened in a yawn that threatened to dislocate his jaw. He took another step and felt his legs buckling.
No. Forrest blinked a few times, shook his head, and pinched his left arm, hard. That kept him awake through two more staggering steps, which put him right in front of the table where Buffy had left the candle. This close, the herbal smell was unbearably thick, and sleep threatened to overwhelm him again. He blinked again, focused on the flickering glow of the flame in front of him, and blew it out.
It took a few seconds for his head to clear. When it did, Forrest turned toward Riley and saw that Buffy was holding him down on the bed. She'd put a fold of her sleeve between his teeth to keep him from biting his tongue, and flung her other arm across his torso, pinning him down.
"Get Dr. Wu!" she shouted. "Get somebody!"
Wu was probably on her way already. She would've started running as soon as the monitors went off, but Forrest reached over anyway and punched the alarm button above the bed. He kept right on punching it, over and over, until Wu burst into the room at a sprint, followed by a nurse wheeling a tray.
"I don't know." Forrest stepped aside to let her approach the bed. "One minute he was sleeping quietly, the next he--"
"Sleeping?" Wu spun around and glared at him accusingly. "What did you do? What's this?" She snatched the candle off the table. "Who brought this?"
Forrest and Buffy both started to answer, but Wu was already turning away. "Never mind. Tell me later." She put the candle back down and took a hypodermic needle from the nurse's tray. "Just hold him still."
It took Buffy and Forrest's combined efforts to hold Riley down long enough for Wu to administer the shot. Even then, he struggled for a few more seconds before finally going still. Forrest watched him cautiously for a while longer, then stepped aside to give Wu some room.
"What did you give him?" he asked.
"Another dose of the antitoxin. I guess now we know it's working." Wu scribbled something on Riley's chart, then set about reinserting the IV needles he'd ripped out during the seizure. Forrest left her to it, grabbed Buffy by the arm, and hauled her out of the room. As soon as the door swung shut behind them, he swung her back against the wall.
"Get the fuck out of here," he growled. "Now."
"What?" She stared at him with startled eyes for a moment, then twisted her arm from his grip. "Wait, you can't just--"
"Get. The fuck. Out." It was a struggle to keep his voice steady. Forrest could still feel his heart pounding, the sweat trickling down his neck. The fear -- no, the pure cold terror he'd felt when Riley's seizure started was quickly transforming into anger. Anger at this goddamn blond bitch with her voodoo candles and her disregard for rules, or common sense, or anyone's feelings but her own, going through life expecting everyone around her to just fall in line. She even got him going along with it for a while, and Riley almost died.
"I'm done with cutting you slack," he told her. "You ever come near this compound again, the guards will have orders to shoot." He took hold of her shoulders and pushed in the direction of the elevator bank.
Or tried to push her, rather. Buffy stood fast, and Forrest found that he couldn't budge her, not even when he put all his strength and weight into the shove. Just another unpleasant reminder that this was not a human being they were dealing with. She must've been too startled to react back in the room, or he never would've been able to drag her out.
Forrest started to bark out an order, but Clarke and Davidson were already there, stepping sideways to put Forrest out of their line of fire, and leveling their taser rifles at Buffy. With a commendable show of sense, they both stood back far enough to ensure that they'd be able to get a shot off if she tried to jump either one of them.
"You heard the man," Clarke said quietly. "Get out."
Buffy glared at each of them in turn. Forrest could see her tensing, as if gathering herself for an attack. His eyes narrowed as he waited for her to make a move. Come on. Do it. Give me an excuse. Please.
She held still, though he could see it took an effort. "Look, Forrest, we don't have to do this. Whatever went wrong with that spell, Giles and Willow and Tara can figure it out and fix it. But it was working, he was asleep--"
"Shut up!" Forrest fought down a childish impulse to clap his hands over his ears. "I don't want to hear another word out of you. Start walking."
Buffy set her jaw, folded her arms across her chest, and stayed where she was. Forrest shrugged and looked toward Clarke, who still had his rifle up.
"If she doesn't move in three seconds, shoot her."
Clarke didn't even blink. "Yes, Sir."
Buffy started to say something, then seemed to think better of it. She gave Forrest a cold, measuring glare, spun around on her heels, and marched off down the corridor. Forrest, Davidson and Clarke followed a few paces behind, trailing her all the way to the front door of Lowell House.VII
Dr. Wu was furious, as livid as Forrest had ever seen her. She paced in front of Forrest's desk, bristling like a pissed-off cat, occasionally pausing to shake a lump of mottled green wax in front of his face. The wax was all that remained of Buffy's candle now that Wu was done with her lab tests.
"I can't believe you let her bring that thing into Finn's room!" she snarled. "How many times do I have to say 'no contaminants' before you get it through your thick skull?"
"It was only a candle," Forrest protested weakly, well aware that he was parroting the Slayer's words. Wu gaped at him as if she couldn't quite believe that a grown man could say something so stupid.
"Yes! It's a candle." She smacked one hand down on the desk, sending a cascade of half-completed paperwork spilling to the floor. "A scented candle. A chunk of wax permeated with chemicals, which get released into the air when the wick is lit. And one of those chemicals triggered a response from the Vinranka. For a few minutes there, it almost doubled its toxin production. If we didn't have the antitoxin, Agent Finn would probably be dead now."
There was no good answer to give to that, so Forrest didn't bother trying. Instead he asked, "Do you know how that candle worked? How it made Riley sleep? If we could still use that somehow--"
"No," Wu said irritably. "That is, no, I don't know how it worked. The chemical analysis showed nothing unusual, just an ordinary store-bought candle, painted with ordinary water-based ink. Nothing that would cause the instant sleepiness you described." She shook her head, looking puzzled and slightly embarrassed. "It's the damnedest thing... we must be overlooking something in the tests, but I have no idea what it might be."
"Don't spend too much time on it," Forrest told her. "Concentrate on Riley."
"I am." Wu scowled threateningly at him. "Just try not to poison him again before I can cure him." And she stormed out of the office, leaving Forrest to grumble to himself as he cleaned up the spilled papers from the floor.
Willow and Tara were crushed. It took Buffy nearly ten minutes to convince them that she wasn't mad at them, and even then they kept trying to apologize.
"I don't understand it," Willow declared for what had to be the hundredth time. "It's a totally harmless spell. I've used it on myself even, when I was all twitchy and insomniac during midterms. I've never heard of anyone having seizures."
"M-maybe we did s-something wrong," Tara suggested in a small voice. She was sitting on Willow's bed with her hands clasped between her knees and her shoulders hunched, looking as miserable as anyone Buffy had ever seen. Willow patted her knee gently.
"I'm sure we didn't. Not after going over it three times. And Buffy says Forrest fell asleep too, at first, and he didn't have a seizure." Willow's face scrunched up into the familiar "don't bother me, I'm thinking" grimace. "It has to be the Vinranka. Maybe it felt the energy from the spell... or just sensed that Riley was asleep... and reacted." She turned toward Tara, eyes wide with concern. "We have to tell Giles. He'll need to adjust the cure spell."
Tara nodded. "He can add a m-masking element. We should've thought of that when we made the candle." She looked up at Buffy with a stricken expression. "I'm so s-sorry."
"It wasn't your fault. You were trying to help." Buffy was getting a little tired of saying that, especially when she didn't entirely mean it, but anything was better than another round of apologies.
"The important thing is that Giles gets it right," Willow said firmly. "His spell is the one that will really count."
Buffy didn't bother pointing out that unless Forrest changed his mind, Giles' spell wasn't going to count for anything either.
She actually considered, briefly, storming the Initiative compound, as she had once planned back when Riley was wounded by Adam. A few lingering remnants of common sense, aided by Giles' patient arguments, put a stop to that plan.
"Say you do succeed, what then?" Giles asked. "Are you going to barricade yourself inside his room and prepare for a siege? Sling him over your shoulder and carry him out? Believe me, Buffy, if I thought it would accomplish something, I'd let you attack that compound just for the stress relief. But you're likely to do Riley more harm than good."<
I>What else is new? Buffy resisted the impulse to punch the wall. She'd already made a crack in Giles' coffee table when she'd kicked it in frustration a couple of minutes earlier. "What am I supposed to do, Giles? Sit around and twiddle my thumbs while I wait to see if he dies tomorrow or the day after? I can't deal with this. I'll go postal."
Giles put down the book he'd been poring over, adjusted his glasses, and ran one hand through his already thoroughly mussed hair. "Buffy... I know this sounds trite and facetious now, but don't lose hope. I'm almost done with the work on this spell. Once it's finished, we'll do what's necessary to make sure it gets cast. Until then, if you must beat something up, go ahead and do so, as long as it's not the Initiative."
So Buffy went out patrolling. The Hellmouth was kind to her for a change, providing a nest of four vampires in one of the cemetery crypts and a couple of Fyarl demons in the parking lot behind the movie theater. No sign of Adam, which was frustrating, but at least there was violence. It kept her relatively sane until morning, when she made the mistake of going to class. The effort of keeping still for an hour while her Art History professor droned on about the Pre-Raphaelites proved to be the mental equivalent of Chinese water torture. Buffy endured it for twenty minutes before collecting her books and leaving the classroom at a run, ignoring the professor's indignant protest behind her.
Punishing a punching bag at the gym for an hour calmed her down somewhat, but it wasn't enough. Nothing was going to be enough, until she knew what was happening with Riley. So Buffy made Willow sit down with the laptop, and hovered over her shoulder until she hacked into the Registrar's Office computer and looked up Graham Miller's class schedule.
Graham didn't look at all happy to find Buffy waiting in the hallway at the end of his Cognitive Psych lecture.
"Buffy." For a moment he looked as if he might bolt, but Buffy put one hand on his arm, and he stayed put. "I'm not supposed to be talking to you."
"I won't tell if you won't." Buffy drew him into the drinking-fountain alcove, where they could talk without being jostled by the converging streams of students leaving their classrooms. "Come on, Graham, I'm not looking for state secrets here. I just want to know how Riley's doing."
"He's... okay... stable." Graham was clearly trying to sound reassuring, but the catch in his voice totally spoiled the effect. "Dr. Wu's antitoxin is doing some good, apparently. She says that as long as he keeps getting regular doses, the seedling won't be able to develop to the point where it kills him."
"That's not a cure."
"No. But it buys time until we find one."
"We might have one soon." Buffy looked around quickly to make sure no one was listening, and lowered her voice. "Giles is working on a spell. He's almost finished. But we'll need to get close to Riley to cast it."
"It's not up to me, Buffy, you know that."
"Forrest is your friend. Talk to him."
Graham shook his head. "I'm not sure Forrest is anybody's friend right now."
"I bet he's still Riley's friend. I'm hoping you are, too. Talk to him."
They stared at each other for a few seconds before Graham blinked and looked away.
"Tell me when you have your spell ready," he muttered. "I'll talk to him then."
Three days passed. Buffy patrolled pretty much around the clock, stopping to eat and sleep just enough to keep herself from collapsing. Giles, Willow and Xander all expressed concern, but they just didn't understand. She couldn't stop. When she stopped, the bad thoughts crept in.
Would it kill you to say it back to him, just once? Forrest's angry words seemed forever stuck in her memory. You could always take it back if he lives. She told herself over and over again that he was only trying to be nasty, but that was small comfort against the thought that Riley might die thinking she didn't care. Especially now, when she couldn't be there with him... what would Forrest have told him about her absence? Would he bother with an explanation at all? Did Riley think she had just walked out on him?
She'd wanted to tell him. She'd rehearsed the words in her mind a thousand times. I love you, Riley. Not so difficult, really. But somehow, they always stuck in her throat. Because once she spoke, Angel would no longer be the only man she'd ever said it to, and something in her resisted that final, irrevocable step. It had never occurred to her that silence could be irrevocable too.
At least once a day, she made a point of cornering Graham somewhere on campus. His progress reports were always depressingly the same. Riley was "stable." Forrest was "edgy." Dr. Wu was "working on it." Buffy knew none of it was his fault, and that he was taking a risk just by talking to her, but it was getting more and more difficult not to lash out at him just because he was there.
At the end of the third day, Giles pronounced that his spell was ready. "Or at least," he amended immediately, "as ready as it ever will be."
Buffy looked at him dubiously. "This isn't the ringing endorsement I was hoping for, Giles."
He gave an apologetic little shrug. "It's the best I can offer, I'm afraid. This isn't exactly something we can test or predict. I can tell you that all the necessary spell components are in place, that their energies should balance, that there have been no ill omens at any point during the preparation. But in the end, we won't know the result until we actually do it."
"Myself, Willow and Tara. The ritual requires three people."
"Which means I have to get all three of you into the compound." Buffy ran one hand through her hair, wincing as her fingers caught on a snarl. "That ought to be fun."
"I take it the Initiative hasn't had a change of heart?"
"Not according to Graham, it hasn't." Buffy hesitated, considering her options. "I could talk to him. Get him to take a message to Forrest. But if Forrest says no, it'll be that much harder to get in on our own. They'll be expecting us."
"And the odds of Forrest saying no are..."
"Pretty much certain," Buffy admitted reluctantly. The prospect of sneaking the entire spell-casting portion of the Scooby Gang past Initiative security was not especially cheering. But she remembered all too well the cold anger on Forrest's face as he and the Initiative guard escorted her from the compound at gunpoint. "I guess there's no choice, really. We break in."VIII
Forrest felt as if the world had shrunk around him. There was his office, and Riley's room, and the stretch of corridor in between. He left the compound only to sleep or shower, eating at his desk, and spending all his spare time at Riley's bedside. He was aware of the men watching him with varying degrees of sympathy, puzzlement, and concern. They thought he was overdoing it. "I know they're supposed to be best buds and stuff," he overheard Mason whispering to Graham once, "but shit, man, you'd think it's his mother dying in there or something."
Graham, who had received his share of Forrest's drunken confidences over the years, replied with a noncommittal grunt. He, too, gave Forrest a lot of concerned looks, but he kept his comments to himself. He was also the only other person who came to visit Riley on a regular basis.
Not that Riley was in any condition to notice. Wu insisted that he was still conscious and aware of his surroundings, but Forrest saw no sign of it. Riley no longer reacted to anything that went on around him -- no movement, no sound, no little shifts of facial expression in response to anything Forrest said. His body could no longer handle food, not even the liquid stuff Wu had been tube-feeding him, so now there was another IV dripping nutrient solution straight into a vein in his chest. He might as well have been a vegetable lying there. Forrest no longer really believed that his visits made any difference, but he kept up anyway, because to stop would be to admit defeat.
"You should've been there last night, man. Graham's team came across a new class of Hostile. They got it cornered in the parking lot behind the gym, and you know what it did? Turned around, lifted up its tail, and sprayed them. Kinda like a skunk, except skunks smell like gardenias compared to this shit. We had to stick the entire team in the shower for three hours, burn their clothes, and toss all their gear. Graham's talking about shaving his head, 'cause he can't get the smell out of his hair." Forrest paused to catch a breath, and to gauge Riley's reaction to the anecdote. Nothing. Not the slightest flicker of understanding in Riley's eyes, no change in the labored rhythm of his breathing.
Forrest moved his chair a little closer to the bed and took hold of Riley's hand, which was as demonstrative as he ever allowed himself to get. "I talked to Dr. Wu and Dr. Ginzberg this morning. They've been tinkering with the antitoxin formula. Wu thinks they might have a better version in a few days. And Ginzberg said something about radiation treatment. I really think they'll--"
The word was spoken so softly, Forrest almost missed it. Then he thought he must've imagined it. It had been days since the last time Riley spoke. Forrest leaned in closer.
"Riley? You still with me?"
"What is it, Ry?"
"Tell them to stop."
"What are--" Forrest choked back the question as his tired brain belatedly processed Riley's words. "No way."
"Please. I'm..." Riley stopped and took three slow, ragged breaths, as if gathering strength to finish the sentence. "I'm too tired."
"No." Forrest's throat felt tight and painful, and he could barely choke the word out. "Don't say shit like that, man. I know you don't mean it."
Riley said nothing, obviously exhausted by his earlier effort. The look in his eyes was clear enough, though. Forrest fled from that look, leaving the room at a run, not stopping until he was back in his quarters at Lowell House with the door locked behind him.
He didn't mean it. Forrest sat on the floor, feeling too tired and shaky to even make it to the bed. Riley couldn't mean it. It was the pain talking, or the Vinranka controlling him somehow. Because Riley would never just give up like that, would never ask to die, would never...Please help him. It wasn't really a prayer. Forrest had never been the religious type, but this was as close as he'd ever come in the course of an eventful life. Please. Just let him be okay. I'll do anything....
His beeper went off.
Graham Miller always went to lunch right after his Applied Statistics class. Buffy caught up to him on the path between Mulcahy Hall and the cafeteria, jogging up from behind to grab his arm. He didn't look surprised to see her, just resigned -- until she hauled him off the path onto the grass.
"Giles has a spell to help Riley," she hissed into his ear. "We need to get him, Willow and Tara into the compound."
"All right." Graham nodded, looking tense and cautiously hopeful. "I'll talk to Forrest."
"Forget it. We both know he's not going to listen. No, you're the one who's going to get us in."
Graham shook his head. "I can't authorize--"
"You don't need to authorize anything." Buffy smiled coldly and tightened her grip on his arm. "You get to be the hostage."
He tensed, and Buffy could see he was going to try to bolt. She quickly stepped closer, still smiling, and wrapped her free arm around his waist. She kept an eye out in case anyone was watching, but people were hurrying past without a second glance. There was nothing unusual to see after all, just another couple flirting on the lawn. Buffy kept up the charade by giggling and resting her head on Graham's shoulder.
"If you try to run," she told him sweetly, "I'll rip your arm off and beat you over the head with it."
"In the middle of campus in broad daylight?" He sounded half-surprised and half-amused. Buffy gave his elbow a little twist, eliciting a grunt that didn't sound amused at all.
"Yes. Do you believe me?"
"This isn't going to wo--"
"Do you believe me?"
"Ow. Yeah, I believe you."
"Good." Buffy let go of his waist and led him back to the path, maintaining the pressure on his elbow. "Don't fight me on this, Graham, I don't want to have to hurt you. Besides, you don't really want to stop me, do you? I'm trying to save Riley's life here."
"I still think we should talk to Forrest," he said. "You're not going to save anyone if you get yourself shot."
"I know. That's what you're here for."
Giles, Willow and Tara waited for them in the student parking lot behind Stevenson Hall. Giles had Buffy's weapons bag, Willow and Tara had their backpacks full of magical goodies, and they all looked suitably grim and determined. Buffy gave them a cheery wave.
"Hey, guys, you remember Graham Miller, don't you? He'll be our designated hostage for today. Say hello to everyone, Graham."
"Hello," Graham said blandly. Buffy patted him on the head.
"Good boy. Now, we need a back entrance, somewhere out of sight of Lowell House. I assume there is one. Show me."
Graham hesitated, took a long look at Buffy's face, and sighed. "Follow me."
The back entrance turned out to be a broom closet in the basement of one of the senior dorms. Graham shoved the brooms and buckets out of the way, recited his name and security code into an unseen mike, and the closet's back wall slid sideways to reveal a narrow, dimly lit shaft with metal brackets embedded into one wall to form a ladder.
Buffy made Graham climb down first and kept a watchful eye on him as she followed, but he made no suspicious moves. When Buffy dropped down next to him, he solemnly held his arm out to her.
"Just don't rip it off by accident, okay?"
"No, if I do it, it will definitely be on purpose," Buffy promised.
There was a thud and a clang as her weapons bag landed at her feet, followed by a belated "Heads up!" call from Giles. Buffy dug through the contents quickly, producing one of her larger and nastier knives.
"There. That should convince your buddies you're in mortal danger, don't you think?"
Graham eyed the serrated blade with a deeply unhappy expression. "Is this really necessary?"
"Don't worry. If I slit your throat, it'll be on purpose too."
There must've been a security camera hidden somewhere very near the shaft, because the first batch of commandos appeared while Tara was still making her way down. Buffy heard them stomping long before they showed up and had Graham in front of her, knife under his chin, by the time they came into view.
"Stop right there," Buffy snapped, and they stopped right there, squinting coldly over their rifle barrels but making no move to attack. "Put down the guns and back off."
They didn't move. There were three of them -- Mason and two guys whose names Buffy couldn't recall, though she remembered seeing them around -- wearing identical pissed-off expressions. They all looked ready to stand there until hell froze over. Or until reinforcements arrived, which was probably more to the point. Buffy let her knife hand twitch a little, which got an answering twitch out of the three commandos and an unhappy hiss out of Graham.
"Better hurry," she told them. "My arm's getting tired. I might slip." That was almost true. Graham wasn't especially tall by Initiative standards, but he still towered over Buffy, and she had to raise her arm at an awkward angle in order to get it around his neck. It wouldn't actually make her slip, but it was certainly increasing her annoyance quotient.
"Buffy." Mason took a cautious half-step forward, freezing when Buffy twitched her hand again. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Trying to help Riley. We have a spell that can cure him. Just take us to him, and--"
"A spell?" Mason gave a short, angry laugh. "Like the one you tried the last time, you mean? Forrest told us what happened. Riley almost died."
"Yeah, but this one is diffe--" Buffy broke off, wincing. Okay, that was just a tad lame. "Look, let's get back to the subject at hand, okay? Put down the guns and back off, or I start doing damage of the gross and bloody kind."
Mason looked annoyingly unimpressed. "You're a Slayer. You don't kill humans."
"Not normally, no. But I'm feeling unusually cranky today."
A long, tense silence followed this declaration. The commandos glared. Buffy glared. Giles, Willow and Tara hung back, looking nervous. Graham held very still. Buffy wondered what she would do if Mason called her bluff. Killing Graham -- or anyone else, for that matter -- wasn't really an option, but the prospect of trying to fight her way past three well-armed soldiers didn't fill her with enthusiasm. And if they stuck around much longer, the rest of the Initiative was going to show up, and then they'd really be--
"Mason." Graham's voice held a very convincing note of panic. "Get Forrest down here, now."
"Graham..." Buffy lifted the knife a little higher, forcing him to tilt his head back. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to stop this from turning into a firefight," he whispered. "I told you this was a stupid plan."
"Getting Forrest involved is not going to--"
"Yes it will. He issued the order to keep you out, he can revoke it. Mason's not going to back down. This is the only way." Graham raised his voice. "Come on, Mason. It's Forrest's call. Get him down here."
Mason hesitated for another couple of seconds, then reached for his cell phone.
Forrest arrived about three minutes later, and Buffy found herself genuinely shocked at his appearance. He looked ... well, maybe not like Hell -- she had seen enough of Hell not to make such comparisons lightly --but at least like Purgatory. If he'd slept a wink since Buffy last saw him, he was doing a fine job of hiding it. He stood with one hand braced against the wall, and she suspected he needed the support to keep from keeling over.
"Slayer," he muttered darkly. "What's it going to take to get you out of my life?"
Buffy resisted the temptation to point out that it wasn't his life she was in. Instead she repeated, in the most reasonable tone she could manage, the sales pitch for Giles' spell. She tried to gauge Forrest's reaction as she spoke, but his eyes were hooded and his jaw set, and she couldn't read his expression. When she finished, he looked not at her, but at Giles.
"Will it really work?" he demanded.
Giles shrugged diffidently. "There's a decent chance."
Forrest nodded, stared at the floor for a few moments, then lifted his head and finally met Buffy's eyes.
"All right," he said. "I'll take you to him."
"I'd like to state for the record," Dr. Wu announced to the universe at large, "that I'm here under protest, and that this entire procedure is being performed over my vehement objection."
"Noted," Forrest muttered.
"Object all you want," Buffy told her. "Just keep out of the way."
The three of them were hovering in the hallway outside Riley's room, taking turns peering through the glass panel to see Giles and Willow painting concentric rings of incomprehensible symbols on the floor around Riley's bed. They had been at it for nearly an hour now and had covered most of the room. Tara, meanwhile, had sprinkled water from a silver bowl over Riley's face and chest, and was now sitting in a chair off to the side, grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle. Riley himself had been stripped naked, disconnected -- over more of Wu's vehement objections -- from all medical equipment, and strapped to the bed in 4-point restraints. Buffy had talked to him during the preparations, trying to explain and reassure, but she had no idea how much he had heard or understood.
Now there was nothing to do except wait. Giles had tried to suggest that the hallway might not be the most comfortable place for a vigil, but Buffy knew she'd go crazy unless she was close to the action. Forrest, she suspected, had similar reasons for his presence. And Wu was standing by with a crash cart and a syringe filled with antitoxin, in case Riley had a seizure. It was not a cheerful gathering, but Buffy did her best to be optimistic.
"I have the new antitoxin ready," Wu grumbled. "And you hold me back for this... voodoo?"
"It's not Voodoo," Buffy told her. "Giles made both Willow and Tara swear on their graves to never, ever try Voodoo. He says it's too specialized to be handled by amateurs, and the Loa are a dangerous, unreliable bunch who'd just as soon eat you as talk to you. This is Runic magic, not that I have any real idea what that means and you think I'm a total loon, don't you?"
Forrest and Wu were both staring at her as if she had two heads. Buffy sighed and rolled her eyes. "Don't freak, you two. It's going to work. Giles explained the whole thing to me. It's kind of like an exorcism -- I actually gave him the idea when I said that Riley was possessed. They're going to force the Vinranka into non-corporeal form, then expel it. Sort of like a physical exorcism instead of a spiritual one."
Neither Forrest nor Wu looked especially reassured by this, so Buffy gave up on further explanations and looked inside the room again.
Giles and Willow had finished with the floor. As a finishing touch, they produced a small glass jar painted with a similar design and placed it exactly halfway between the bed and the door. Now Willow knelt at the foot of the bed, eyes closed, and chanted something in a voice too soft to hear while Giles drew a rune on Riley's chest using the same inky stuff he had used on the floor, and Tara lit candles.
Forrest shifted from foot to foot, looking tense. "This is what started the trouble the last time. It's not the same kind of candle, is it?"
"Totally different," Buffy said quickly. She had no idea if that was actually true, but she knew she had to keep Forrest calm, or the whole thing could blow up. "Besides, I think that chant Willow's doing is a masking spell, so the Vinranka won't notice what's happening until it's too late."
"Too late for whom?" Forrest grumbled darkly, but he made no move to interfere.
Tara sprinkled a pinch of herbs over each candle, knelt down next to Willow, and took up the chant. A few seconds later, Giles switched off the overhead lights and joined them. Their voices grew loud enough for Buffy to hear them through the closed door, but she couldn't make out the words. When she placed her hands against the door, she could feel a faint hum in the metal as the power of the spell built inside the room.
"What's going on in there? Let me see." Forrest tried to shoulder her aside. She held her place just long enough to show him that he couldn't, then moved just enough to allow him to stand next to her and look.
Giles, Willow and Tara continued chanting. They were beginning to show the strain: Giles' forehead was beaded with sweat, Tara kept clenching and unclenching her fists, and Willow swayed from side to side, looking as if she might faint. The candle flames around them flickered, as if a draft was blowing through the room, but nothing else appeared to be touched.
"Nothing's happening," Forrest complained.
The runes on the floor glowed with a white light, faint at first but brightening steadily. All three spell-casters faltered for a moment, then linked hands and resumed the chant. On the bed, Riley's body began to shudder and twitch.
Forrest made a move to open the door, but Buffy blocked him with one arm. "Don't. Break the spell now, and you might kill all four of them."
"They're hurting him--"
"I don't think so. I think the spell is working."
The mark on Riley's chest was glowing too now, and he was bucking so against the restraints, Buffy began to fear he might actually break them. The door was throbbing like a drum beneath her hands, and even the floor seemed to vibrate. Just how much power was this spell conjuring, she wondered. And what would happen if it got loose?
Riley screamed. A green mist streamed from his mouth and nose, steamed from his skin, swirled in the same invisible breeze that was stirring the candles. The swirl became a funnel, a mini-tornado that bounced off the walls a few times before being sucked, with a furious, wailing sound, into the painted glass jar. Willow disengaged her hands from Giles' and Tara's, lurched forward, and slammed the lid down.
All the candles in the room went out at once. The surge of magical energy broke off with a silent but powerful snap, like a psychic thunderclap. Buffy staggered back from the door, vaguely aware of Forrest and Wu doing the same. She recovered her footing first and ran forward again to peek through the glass, but the runes had stopped glowing and the room was now dark. Buffy shoved the door open and ran one hand against the wall until she hit the light switch.
Giles, Willow and Tara were still on their knees on the floor, clinging to each other and gasping with exhaustion. None of them looked as if they were about to die, so Buffy ran over to the bed to check on Riley. His eyes were closed, and he didn't react when she undid the restraints, but he was breathing evenly.
Wu hurried over, all cool and business-like, checking Riley's pulse and lifting his eyelids to shine a pen light at his pupils.
"Vital signs seem normal," she murmured, sounding more puzzled than pleased. "I think he's fainted."
"What a good idea," Giles sighed, and keeled over.EPILOGUE
Buffy shuffled sideways through the door, lugging a box under one arm and a dozen mylar balloons in the other.
"Hey, you!" she called out to Riley, a second before realizing she wasn't the only visitor in the room. "Oh, hi, Forrest."
"I was just leaving," he grunted and hurried out. Buffy shrugged, dumped her box on the floor, and set about tying the balloons to the bedpost above Riley's head.
"I was going to get flowers," she said, "but Xander said it wasn't manly enough, and Willow thought you might not be too fond of plants right now, even though the Vinranka really wasn't one, but it being all green and leafy and stuff, and I'm totally babbling, aren't I."
"I like to hear you babble." Riley smiled, and it was almost like his usual broad grin. He had slept for four days straight and woken up hungry, both of which Dr. Wu had pronounced to be favorable signs. He was still too pale and thin for Buffy's comfort -- he'd lost over fifteen pounds in a week -- but the lines in his face had smoothed out and his eyes were clear. When Buffy cupped his face to kiss him, his skin felt warm but not feverish.
"You're in luck then, 'cause I'm bubbling with babble today." Buffy sat down in the chair Forrest had vacated, and ripped open the box at her feet. "And gifts. Babble and gifts, all for you, though not all from me. The balloons are from me." She tossed the cardboard lid aside and began unpacking smaller boxes and containers. "The chocolate chip cookies are from Willow. The little crystal doodad is from Tara. You're supposed to hang it above the bed and it focuses positive energy or somesuch. Looks pretty, anyway. The Electronic Battleship set is from Xander and Anya, and the thermos is from Giles, I think it's got tea in it. I can pour it out in the sink if you like."
"No, leave it here." Riley took the thermos from her and put it on the bedside table, next to a "get well" card with a picture of a girl in a bikini and army boots, all scribbled over with several dozen signatures. "Tell the gang thanks for me, okay? I feel better already."
"Well, how about a little extra from me, then?" Buffy leaned forward and kissed him again. She meant it to be a quick, casual smooch, but Riley responded with more enthusiasm than she would've expected from a man who was at death's door less than a week ago. And the smooch turned into something more like a swoon, which ended with Buffy sprawled on top of Riley, his arms wrapped tightly around her waist.
"I think we'd better stop," he whispered when they came up for air. "Not that I'm not enjoying myself, but I'd rather not have Dr. Wu come running in here to see why my heart monitor is spiking."
"Wuss." Buffy laughed and planted a kiss on his shoulder. "How about a nice, safe cuddle, then?"
"I think I can manage that..."
So Buffy curled up against Riley's side, closed her eyes, and listened to the strong, steady sound of his breathing as he held her. It was... comfortable. Warm. A nice glowy feeling, and she found herself wondering for the thousandth time if this could be love. It seemed impossible to take this peaceful feeling and the heart-wrenching intensity she'd felt for Angel, and call them by the same name. Because she had loved Angel, there could be no question about that. All the pain they'd put each other through, put the people around them through -- it had to be for love, because otherwise it was for nothing. And if that was love, then what did she and Riley have?
He'd made no more declarations since he'd woken the day before. And he told her, when she dropped a few hints about it, that he had only vague recollections of anything that went on during the week he'd been possessed by the Vinranka. Buffy had no idea if that was really true or if he was just letting her off the hook, but she was willing to go along with either case.
"I have to go," she whispered after a while. "I'm thinking of doing something really radical today, like actually going to class again. See you later tonight?"
"I'll be here." Riley kissed the top of her head and let her go.
Forrest was waiting for her in the corridor when she left the room. Buffy stopped, instantly uncomfortable, unsure what to expect. He just stood there and looked at her, silent and intense, and though he wasn't actually blocking her way, she didn't feel easy just turning her back on him and walking by.
"What?" she finally asked.
Forrest stared at the wall above her head rather than meet her eyes. "You saved his life," he said. "You and your friends. You saved him when we couldn't. It's not really gonna change anything, but... I'm grateful."
"He would've probably died in that sewer," Buffy pointed out. "And me and Xander, too, if you and your guys hadn't shown up. And sure as hell would've died before Giles could finish designing the spell if your Dr. Wu hadn't been such a competent bitch." She sighed, tired of all this tension and hostility. "It's not a competition, Forrest. Riley's okay. Do we really need to sit here keeping score about who did what?"
"No," he muttered grudgingly. "I suppose we don't." He looked directly at her for the first time, and managed something vaguely resembling a smile before turning away again. Buffy made herself smile back. Things would never be comfortable between them, that was clear enough, but they didn't have to be at each other's throats all the time.
"Truce?" She offered.
"Truce," he agreed. "Come on. I'll walk you out."
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