Another Peaceful War


a Buffy the Vampire Slayer story by Marina Frants



Feel free to send feedback to the author.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4





1

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You can dream the American Dream
But you sleep with the lights on
And wake up with a scream

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In my dream I watch, mute and frozen, while a monster with my best friend's face kills Buffy in front of me. He flings her across the room, overturning tables and gurneys, smashing lab equipment to the floor in small explosions of glass, metal and plastic. She fights well, as she always has, but he's too strong, he beats her down to the floor and pins her with his weight, wraps his hands around her throat, squeezes... and I can't move. They're so close to me, almost close enough to touch, and I can't move, I'm helpless, I can only watch her face as she dies.

I wake up in a cold sweat, shaking, and can't immediately remember where I am. So I make myself hold still and breathe deep until my heart stops pounding and my surroundings register. I'm in a plane, and the "fasten seat belts" light is on above my head. We seem to be flying through some turbulence, which is probably what woke me up. I'm grateful for it.

"Young man, are you all right?" The elderly woman in the window seat gives me a concerned look. "Are you going to be sick?"

"I'm fine," I tell her, but my stomach is churning and my whole body feels clammy, the clothes sticking to my skin. She offers me her bottle of Evian, and I take a few sips. It's luke warm and has a stale, plastic-bottle taste, but it does settle my stomach a bit. I mumble a thank-you and lean back in my seat, glancing at my watch. A little over an hour before we land in Des Moines. That's not so bad. I can stay awake for an hour. And maybe it will be better when I'm home.

The dreams started when I arrived in D.C., and it seems like every night they get a little worse. No use telling myself that it's not how it happened, that Buffy's fine, that I helped her, dammit. Every night, my brain keeps playing out worst-case scenarios. Exercising myself into exhaustion at the hotel gym didn't help. Neither did the booze in the mini-bar. By the time the debriefing was over, I was a wreck. If someone asked me now, I don't think I could say what questions I answered, what papers I signed, what promises I made. The night before I was scheduled to fly back to California, I found myself standing out on the balcony at two in the morning, looking out at the Potomac and the city lights beyond, afraid to sleep. And I knew I couldn't go back, not like this.

"I'm homesick," I told Buffy on the phone. "I haven't seen my folks since the Christmas break. I just want to spend some time with them. And... I guess I need a little time to myself. Away from Sunnydale."

"I understand." Buffy's voice sounded small and lonely, and I just knew she was hearing "away from Sunnydale" as "away from you." "It's okay. Take all the time you need."

"I love you," I said. "I miss you. I'll be back as soon as I can, I swear."

"I'll wait," she promised. "Call when you can, okay?" And then, just as I was hanging up, almost too softly to hear: "I love you too."

I almost called her back to say I changed my mind. I wanted to be with her so badly. I just knew it would all be better if she was there. The dreams would go away if only I could hold her while I sleep. Even now, remembering her voice, I find myself thinking that I could probably get a flight from DesMoines to LAX, and catch the bus from there... but that would be an escape, not a solution. And it wouldn't be fair to her. Buffy Summers already has the weight of the world on her shoulders, I can't make her responsible for my sanity, too. I need to work this out on my own, so that when I come back I can be a support and not a burden.

I keep telling myself that as I wait for the plane to land.

We arrive on time, miracle of miracles. A tinny voice welcomes me to DesMoines International Airport as I pry myself out of the cramped economy seat. I pull down my neighbor's bag, then my own, and listen to my knees creak as I disembark the plane.

Dad and Stephanie are waiting for me at the gate. Dad's got a button-down shirt and a jacket on, so I know he was teaching earlier. Steph's wearing jeans and a purple sweatshirt with a unicorn on it. She's got matching purple sneakers, earrings and barrettes, and a purple backpack with silver and gold stars painted all over.

"Hey, Dad. Hey, Squirt." I give them each a hug. The top of Steph's head bumps my chin. Seems like every time I see her, she gets another inch taller. At fourteen, she's already almost as tall as Dad. "Good to see you. Mom working the night shift again?"

Dad nods. "She tried switching, but you know how it is."

"I know." Mom's a surgical nurse at Iowa Lutheran, and it's hard for her to switch shifts on short notice. Dad teaches history at Drake, so his schedule's more flexible. That makes the whole family accounted for -- my other sister, Elizabeth, is in Paris for the summer on a student-exchange gig.

I have no luggage to pick up, so it's only a few minutes before we're all in the car, heading north on Route 69 toward Ankeny. I know we're passing familiar landmarks as we go, but it's almost eleven o'clock and the moon is a narrow crescent, so all I can see out the window is blackness, broken by the occasional gas station sign or illuminated billboard. Steph bounces in the back seat, chattering excitedly about school, friends, summer plans, a new mall going up over on Creekview, a boy in her dance class who looks just like Leonardo DiCaprio... I try to pay attention, at least enough so I can nod at the right times, but all I can think about is that sometime soon I'll have to tell them I'm not in the Army anymore.

It's not like they'll disown me or anything. My parents have always supported my career, just like they support Elizabeth studying biochemistry and Steph wanting to be a ballet dancer. I could say I wanted to be a ballet dancer, and they'd be like, "great, son, here's your tutu, the lessons start tomorrow." The Army is no big deal to them. But it's always been a big deal to me, and they know it, and they'll want to know why I left. And I have absolutely no idea what to tell them.

My parents' house is in a cul-de-sac at the end of a quiet street just north of Sunset Park. The driveway light must be busted again, because it doesn't go on when we pull in. The night is so quiet I can hear the crickets chirping, and the stillness makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My imagination fills the darkness with demons waiting to pounce. When Steph gets out of the car before Dad and I do, I want to yell at her to get back, keep close, stay where I can protect her. It's stupid, of course. Demons like big, crowded cities with high murder rates, places where anonymous victims can disappear without too much fuss. They don't come to small towns like Ankeny unless there's a Hellmouth to draw them. Still, I listen tensely for unexpected sounds as I follow Steph to the front door.

Nothing happens. No vampires molest us on the front porch, nothing jumps out from behind the door when Dad opens it, no monsters lurk in the living room. But I don't completely relax until the door closes behind us.

Steph wants to stay up and watch TV, and Dad reminds her it's a school night. I leave them to argue about it while I lug my bag upstairs. The guest room's gotten a new coat of paint since my last visit, a big improvement on the horrid puke-yellow color it used to be back when it was my room, but otherwise it all looks the same: faded green carpet, calico curtains, my grandmother's Jewel Box quilt on the bed. I'm unpacking my clothes into the bureau when Dad comes in.

"You need anything?" he asks. I shake my head. He sits on the edge of the bed and watches while I stack my t-shirts in a neatly folded pile in the top drawer. "So how long will you be staying?"

I want to make some joke, maybe ask him if he's trying to get rid of me already, but I'm just not in the mood. "I don't know. A while."

"Well... how long's your leave?"

So now I have to tell him. No chance to put it off till morning. I stare at the wall in front of me while I put the words together in my head. Nice wall. Good paint job. I could stand and look at it all night.

"Riley?"

"I'm not on leave." I tear myself away from the endless fascination of white paint and make myself actually look at my father. "I've resigned."

"Resigned?" He looks just like I knew he would -- shocked, confused, worried. "You've left the Army? Just like that?"

"Yeah." I become fascinated with the paint again. "Just like that."

"Why?!"

"It's... I guess it's just not for me anymore. I'm going to concentrate on school. Finish my thesis. Get a real job." I try to be light and casual about it, but I can hear the hollow ring in my voice. Dad hears it too, because the frown lines in his face deepen. He gets up from the bed and stands next to me.

"Eight years, and suddenly you guess it's not for you? I've never heard you say a single bad thing about the Army. You even liked boot camp. What happened?"

"I changed my mind."

He puts a hand on my shoulder, making me turn and look at him again. "Riley... are you in some sort of trouble?"

"No." God, I hate lying to him. "It was an honorable discharge."

He doesn't look at all reassured by this. "Maybe we'd better talk in the morning."

"There's nothing to talk about!" I yell. "It's done. I'm out. Deal with it!" We stand there for a moment, just staring at each other, until I slam the drawer shut and flop down on the bed. "I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't mean to shout. I'm just tired." That's not actually true. I feel wired, jumpy, and wide awake despite getting maybe two hours of sleep a night since I left Sunnydale. But it makes for a handy excuse.

"I understand," Dad says mildly. I feel lower than pondscum.

"I'm sorry. But I really don't want to talk about it, okay?"

"Fine; if that's how you really feel."

I keep my hand over my eyes until I hear the door click shut behind him, then sit up to take off my jeans and shirt. I start to fold them too, until I remember that civilians are allowed to be sloppy, and dump them on the floor by the bed. Look at me, I'm a rebel.

By the light of the bedside lamp, I peel the bandage from my left shoulder and look at the scar beneath. It's half-healed already. The skin around it is still red, and it hurts when I lift my arm, but there's no swelling and the stitches can probably come out in a couple of days. It should've taken much longer, weeks, maybe even months, but I guess I don't heal like normal people anymore. I smear on the antibiotic ointment the doctor gave me, put on a fresh square of gauze and fasten it with bits of cloth tape, climb under the covers and click off the light.

In my dream I'm strapped down, naked, on an operating table in a brightly lit room. There are people standing in a circle around me, dressed in surgical gowns and masks. They all seem familiar somehow. I feel I should recognize their faces even behind the masks, but I don't. They're talking among themselves in hushed voices, too soft for me to make out the words. When I try to ask them what's going on, I discover that I can't speak. I can feel my lips moving and my throat working, but no sound comes out. I pull at the straps, but they hold fast.

Dr. Walsh appears. She's got a mask on too, but I know it's her. She holds her hand out, and someone puts a scalpel in it. "Be a good boy, Riley," she says, and slices down toward my heart.

I wake up on the floor, the quilt tangled around my legs. For a while I just lie there, dazed, wondering if anyone's going to come running to check up on me. But everything's quiet, and eventually I grip the edge of the mattress and haul myself up to a sitting position. It takes me a minute or so to disentangle myself, another minute to find the bedside lamp by feel and turn it on. Light floods the room, and I feel a moment of giddy relief before the anger kicks in. This is ridiculous. I'm a grown man. A soldier. Okay, ex-soldier. I've killed demons. I don't need a goddamn night-light. I climb back into bed, click the lamp off, and pull the plug from the wall for good measure.

The sun is rising by the time I fall asleep again.

2

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From dawn to sundown
It's a long, long way
And it's a hollow triumph
When you make it to the bottom of another day

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Dad is teaching summer session, and Steph still has two weeks of school left, so they're both gone by the time I drag myself downstairs in the morning. Mom's in the kitchen, drinking coffee and reading the paper. I know, by the searching way she looks at me when I come in, that Dad has told her what happened, but all she does is hug me and move her chair back so I can get to the fridge.

I settle down with my glass of orange juice and bowl of Rice Krispies, and she finishes the article she was reading before asking in an oh-so-casual voice, "How's school?"

So we're not talking about the Army this morning. Good. I tell her about exams and papers and ditzy freshmen with their lame excuses for missed assignments. It's amazing how much irrelevant stuff I can dredge up if I really put my mind to it. I talk for half an hour, and never even mention such pesky little details as my thesis advisor being skewered to death and turned into a zombie by one of her less successful lab experiments. Or my own status as a less-than-successful lab experiment. My left shoulder itches, and I rub it whenever Mom's not looking.

I'm stacking the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher by the time she finally gets around to asking, "Riley, what's wrong?"

"Nothing." I smile at her over my shoulder. "Why do you ask?"

"You look like death warmed over. You're babbling. And your father says he heard you crying out in your sleep last night."

Damn. I really thought I was being quiet about it. Gotta watch that.

"Nothing's wrong, Mom. I'm tired and I had a bad dream. Are you done with that mug?"

I spend the day in a fit of useful activity. Fix the driveway light. Clean the garage. Mow the lawn. Fix the leaky faucet in the downstairs bathroom. Clean the basement. I'm looking at Mom's car and thinking vaguely about rotating the tires when she comes out of the house and more or less bodily drags me inside.

"Slow down," she says. "You're supposed to be on vacation. I'm getting exhausted just watching you."

So I sit in the living room and channel surf for an hour or so, then borrow her car and drive out to my grandparents' place in Huxley. Everyone there is thrilled to see me, particularly the dogs, who demonstrate their enthusiasm by covering me in hair and drool. There are always chores that need to be done on a farm, and I spend the rest of the afternoon and evening fixing the roof on the tool shed. It's mindless, methodical work that requires banging things with a hammer -- just what I need.

Some phone calls must've taken place while I worked, because when I come into the house at dusk, my grandparents both have the same quietly worried look, and Grandma gives me a hug for no reason before sitting me down to eat.

Grandma, unlike either of my parents, can actually cook, so the dinner is my big reward for the day's work. I shovel down pot roast and glazed carrots and mashed potatoes while my grandparents make small talk. They ask about school, and I repeat all the stuff I told Mom this morning. They ask about my friends, and I tell them about the time Graham chugged down a liter of Jolt to pull an all-nighter for a midterm and then spent half the night jogging circles around the campus because he was too wired to study. They ask about Buffy, and I tell them about our romantic Valentine's Day outing, which involved a thunderstorm, two flat tires, and the biggest dry-cleaning bill of my life. Another conversational minefield successfully negotiated, and with lemon meringue pie, too.

Driving back to Ankeny after dinner, I turn off Route 69 and follow a familiar maze of local roads, each one smaller than the last, until I end up on a narrow dirt track curving across an overgrown pasture. This used to be dairy farm when I was a kid, but it shut down in the early eighties, and no one ever bought up the land again. Now it's just grass and dirt and a few ruined buildings in the distance. I pull the car over and sit on the hood, staring up at the sky.

It's not really the middle of nowhere. DesMoines is less than twenty miles to the south of me, Ames is even closer to the north. But it's one of the quietest places I know, and at night, with the stars spread out above me, it's easy to pretend I'm the only living soul in the world. I've been coming here since I was a kid, first by bike, then by car. Sitting here now with the silence ringing in my ears I feel... not exactly peaceful, but at least... sedate. Non-violent. It's a nice feeling. I close my eyes and lie back on the hood, letting the heat from the metal soak into my skin.

Something rustles in the grass, and I'm on my feet, crouched in a defensive stance, before my brain finishes registering the sound.

"Who's there?"

No answer. I remind myself that Iowa is full of perfectly harmless things that might want to rustle in the dark for their own reasons, but my heart is beating way too fast, and my hands itch for a gun or a knife or at least a really sharp wooden stick. Finally I decide that it would be good to at least see what I'm being paranoid about, so I reach in through the open car window and switch on the high beams.

The light sets off more rustling, and I squint in the direction of the sound to see a big fat skunk waddle across the road and disappear in the grass on the other side. I stare after it and try to make myself appreciate the humor in the situation, but it's eluding me somehow. I kick the tires a couple of times to relieve my frustration, get back into the car, and drive home.

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The next few days are uneventful. I divide my time between Ankeny and Huxley, doing whatever chores I can get away with. I take long walks and even longer drives, shoot baskets in the driveway for hours, jog, get a summer membership at a local gym and work out till I'm ready to drop. A couple of times I think about looking up a few of my old school buddies -- I know at least some of them must be in town for the summer -- but thinking about it is as far as I ever get. The dreams keep coming, but I think I've gotten the hang of waking up quietly, because nobody mentions it after that first night.

On the third day I call Buffy, just to hear her voice. She sounds glad to hear mine, too, and we exchange pleasantries for a couple of minutes before she says, "You're missing all the fun, you know. We're having portents here."

"Portents?" That sounds unpleasantly biblical. "What kind of portents?"

"Subtle ones, mostly. Stars aligning, mystical forces converging, that sort of things. I would've missed most of them myself, but you know how Giles is -- no portent ports in Sunnydale without him noticing. He had me out on extra patrols even before it started raining frogs."

"It rained frogs?" Oh yeah, definitely biblical. "What kind of frogs?"

"I don't know." She sound exasperated. "Do I look like a frogologist? Green slimy ones."

"Well, as long as it wasn't the poison-dart kind. Was anybody hurt?"

"I think a couple of cars wiped out. And Willow was really freaked. Other than that, no big."

No big. Just the plural of apocalypse again, probably. "You want me to come out and help?"

"Nah," she says regretfully. "Giles thinks its going down tonight, whatever it is. I'll take care of it."

Oh, boy. I can't wait to see what I'm going to dream tonight. "Call me after? Just so I know you're okay?"

"Sure."

I'm about to wish her luck and say goodbye, but it seems my mouth has other ideas, because I suddenly find myself blurting out, "Hey, why don't you come out here?"

"To Iowa?" I can practically see her startled expression over the phone.

"Yeah. After you're done with the portent thing. You can meet my folks. Hang out. See the sights in beautiful downtown Ankeny. I'll pay for your ticket." God, I don't sound desperate, do I? Yes I do.

"I'd love to," Buffy says wistfully. "Really I would. But I'm off to L.A. on Monday. Going to visit with my Dad for a couple of weeks."

"Oh." Suddenly there's a lead weight sitting at the bottom of my stomach, and my hand is sweat-slick on the receiver. "L.A. Right."

"With my Dad," Buffy repeats emphatically. Meaning, not with Angel. And I believe her, I really do. I trust her. I'm not jealous. Not at all jealous of a dark, brooding, Byronic vampire-with-a-soul who can kick my ass and whose idea of perfect happiness is sex with my girlfriend. Oh, no, not me...

"Riley?"

"That's nice," I choke out. "You have fun, okay?" And I hang up before she can say anything else.

I sit and stare at the phone for a long time, thinking all sorts of unpleasant thoughts. I think about Buffy back in Sunnydale, fighting something that has portents. I think about her in L.A., where Angel is. I think about the fact that I can barely manage to make small-talk about the weather with my parents, but I can have a perfectly good conversation about raining frogs. And I wonder if it would be feasible to just stay awake for the next couple of weeks.

That night, I sit up in bed with an old Tom Clancy novel, but the heroic deeds of Jack Ryan don't grip me like they used to, and after a few hours I start to feel a little woozy, so I drag myself down to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

I'm sitting there waiting for the water to boil, and I guess it's a measure of how brainfried I am that I don't even hear Dad approaching until he walks in.

"Riley?" He stands in the doorway blinking at me. "What are you doing up? It's two in the morning."

"I couldn't sleep," I say.

He takes in the kettle on the stove and the jar of Folger's on the table. "So you decided to come down and get a cup of coffee? I'm not sure I'm following the logic here." Before I have time to come up with a reply, he frowns and steps closer, squinting. "What happened to your shoulder?"

It finally dawns on me that I'm sitting here in nothing but my shorts. I don't have the bandage on anymore, but the scar is clearly visible, and even half-asleep and without his glasses on Dad was bound to notice sooner or later. I resist the impulse to clap my hand over my shoulder.

"It's nothing. An accident during a training exercise."

Dad frowns at me unhappily for a moment, then pulls up a chair and sits down. "Riley. I know you're a grown man and I'm not supposed to pry into your life anymore, but won't you please talk to me? What happened to you?"

"I told you. An accident duri--"

"That's not what I mean. You run yourself ragged all day, and then you still don't sleep. You sit down at mealtimes and talk to us as if we're a bunch of strangers you have to be polite to. You never relax." He leans forward, resting his elbows on the table, and fixes me with an earnest look. "From the time you first joined the Army, I worried about Bosnia, Rwanda, the Middle East... it never occurred to me I needed to worry about you going away to school in Southern California. I just want to know what's wrong. Maybe I can help."

There isn't a single true thing I can tell him that wouldn't get me arrested or committed. Or both. And I hate not being able to look him in the eye. I get up and walk around the kitchen, puttering with the things on the counter, just because it gives me something to do.

"You can't help. And I wish you'd stop trying. You and Mom and everybody -- you're just making it worse with all that damn hovering. I'm just trying to go back to being a normal person again, and it really makes it hard when my whole goddamn family is hanging around waiting for me to go psycho!" My voice keeps getting louder as I rant until I'm almost shouting. Part of me is appalled at myself, talking to my father like that, but it's not the part that's in control.

Dad doesn't look angry or offended, just thoughtful. "When did you stop being a normal person?" he asks.

The question catches me totally off-guard, and for a few seconds all I can do is stand there and blink. "Excuse me?"

"You said you were trying to go back to being a normal person," Dad explains patiently. "I'm just wondering when you stopped being one, that's all."

The kettle chooses that moment to boil, winning me a bit of breathing space. I make a big production out of the coffee making process: spooning the powder in with scientific precision, stirring the sugar until every last grain is dissolved, pouring in some milk though I usually don't take any. It's all a useless exercise, of course, because when I'm done Dad is still sitting there waiting for his answer.

Maybe if I tell him a little bit of the truth, he'll go away... I pace circles around the kitchen table, sipping my crappy oversugared coffee with milk in it. "Dad... do you remember Forrest?"

"Your friend from boot camp? The one who visited last Easter?"

"Yeah."

"What about him?"

"He's dead."

Dad sits up straight, looking fully awake for the first time in this conversation. "My God. I'm sorry, Riley. What happened?"

I have a cover story all ready to tell him. A nice, detailed cover story that was fed to me as part of the debriefing, to be used if anyone -- like Forrest's family, for instance -- came looking for answers. I open my mouth to spout the official lie, and I hear myself say "I killed him," as if it's somebody else talking from far away.

For a moment, we both freeze. I don't know which one of us is more stunned -- Dad at hearing my words, or me at saying them. I recover my voice first, but all I can think of to say is, "Forget I said that."

"Like hell I will!" Dad must be really upset; he never swears. "When did this happen? Was it some sort of accident?"

"No..." I start pacing again, faster than before. My hands shake. I'm spilling hot coffee over my fingers, and I barely notice. "Look, I can't talk about this, okay? I shouldn't have said what I did, it's all classified, I don't know what came over me, and can we please just let it go?"

It's a lost cause. Dad's the closest thing Ankeny has to a left-wing hippie liberal, and military authority doesn't carry any weight with him. "I don't care how classified it is. Not when my son is falling apart before my eyes. If you need to talk about it, then talk. You know I'm not going to broadcast it on the evening news."

It's no use trying to explain to him that classified doesn't mean you can only tell people who promise not to tell anybody else. He's got his mind made up. He looks all sympathetic and non-judgemental, ready to hear anything I tell him and be supportive about it. But he's not ready. And I don't want him to be. If anything good has come out of this last hellish year, it's that normal people in normal places like Iowa don't have to be ready for demons and vampires.

"Riley." Dad is still sympathetic, but a bit of impatience is starting to creep into his voice. "Will you please stop circling like that? You're making me dizzy. Sit down."

I shake my head. "I'm going back to bed now."

"Sit!" he snaps, exasperated, and I shout back "No!" so loud, the windows rattle.

This leads to our second stunned silence of the night, definitely a record in this house. It's broken by the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and Mom's sleepy voice.

"Paul? Riley? Is everything okay?"

"We're fine, honey. Just a bit of an accident here." Dad crouches on the floor, picking up pieces of broken mug. There's a coffee stain on the wall above him, slowly trickling downward.

"How did that happen?" I ask.

"How did what happen?"

"That." I point at the spillage. Dad sits back on his heels, watching me warily.

"You threw the mug at me," he says.

"Oh." I don't remember doing that. It couldn't have happened more than five seconds ago, and I don't remember. But I can see the trajectory from where I'm standing to the stain on the wall, it looks like Dad must've ducked just in time. Oh, God...

I back away until I bump into the counter, and then I slump against it, shaking. That's how Mom finds me when she walks in a few seconds later. Behind her, I can see Steph hovering in the hallway, looking pale and frightened. Wonderful. My whole family standing around watching while I have a psychotic episode. In my underwear.

Mom watches me for a bit, then looks over her shoulder and tells Steph to go back to bed. It's a measure of how freaked Steph must be that she slinks away without arguing. Mom goes upstairs after her, but comes down again soon after and presses a couple of little blue pills into my hand.

"Take these," she says, pouring me a glass of water.

I should probably ask what's in the pills, but at the moment I don't care if it's arsenic. I swallow them down, gulp the water, and let Mom take my elbow and steer me from the kitchen. Dad starts to say something as we brush by him, but she silences him with a glare.

"Not now, Paul. Come on, Riley, let's get you to bed."

The stairs loom like Mount Everest. My legs feel like wet noodles. I'll never make it. "I can't..."

"Sure you can." Mom wraps one arm around my waist and supports me as we climb the first step. She's very strong for her size. Between her and the banister, I feel reasonably sure that I won't fall, even though my knees keep wobbling and my head is spinning. Everything is kind of blurry, like an out of focus movie, and I can't quite recall why I'm climbing these incredibly steep stairs, or what's waiting at the top. I do remember I did something bad, though. Something really awful, I'm just not sure what. I force myself to concentrate, trying to retrieve the memory.

A bar. I remember a bar. With demons in it. I remember a gun in my hand. God, I really lost it, didn't I? Terrorizing some poor old woman, waving my gun around like a lunatic. What the hell's wrong with me?

"I'm sorry..."

"It's all right."

"No, it's not. I shouldn't have pulled my gun like that. I didn't mean to scare anybody."

She says nothing as we climb the next few steps. Then, "Riley? Do you know where you are?"

"Xander's place..." But then why are we going upstairs instead of down? Nothing is making sense. "What's wrong with me?"

"You're sick. You need to get some sleep."

That's right. She said that before. I remember now. At least I think I do... "I'm sorry I accused you earlier, Buffy. I didn't mean it. I know you wouldn't be happy that Maggie's dead..."

"It's all right. Just keep moving."

It takes forever, but we do reach the top of the stairs. Then it's another endless trek down a hallway, through a door, across the room... When did Xander's place get so big? My eyes refuse to stay open anymore, so it's a relief to fall into the bed. I curl up into a ball, and Buffy pulls the blanket over me.

"I love you," I mutter, just before I fade out.

3

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Didn't they always used to say
A man ain't supposed to cry
I defy you to look me in the eye
And tell me you're a friend of mine

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Mom's pills must pack a hell of a punch, because I sleep like a rock, and don't wake up until mid-afternoon. It's Sunday, which means I've slept through church, but I'm having trouble getting worked up about it. I feel alert but physically wasted, and it's great to just lie there and not move. The only problem is, it leaves me nothing to do but think. My memories of the night before are kind of hazy, but I definitely recall freaking out in the kitchen with my whole family watching. Not to mention getting Mom and Buffy mixed up in what's left of my mind. Professor Walsh would've had a field day with that one.

I'm considering the possibility of hiding under the covers for the rest of my life when someone taps on the door. Oh, well.

"Come in," I call out.

It's Mom, in Super-Nurse mode. It's no use arguing with her when she gets like that, so I let her take my temperature and my blood pressure and my pulse. When she's done she shakes her head, looking puzzled.

"You're fine. But you were burning up earlier..."

"I'm not sick," I tell her. "Just tired. I feel much better now."

"Good. You want something to eat?"

"Only if Grandma makes it."

"Very funny. I guess you are feeling better. By the way, Buffy called this morning while you were asleep."

"She did?" I start to sit up, feel dizzy, and fall back down again. "Why didn't you wake me?"

"You needed the sleep. She said to tell you that everything worked out fine, and not to worry about L.A."

So the frog-raining menace is presumably taken care of. That's nice to know. The other thing... I don't want to think about.

"Are you okay?" Mom looks concerned. "You're a bit pale all of a sudden."

I close my eyes. "Yeah. I guess I'm more tired than I thought."

"Rest then." Mom pats the quilt over my stomach. "Let me know if you need anything."

It doesn't matter how old you are or how self-sufficient you've been for all your adult life, there's a great deal to be said for staying in bed all day and having your mom fuss over you. Even if she does burn toast. For the rest of the day, I just wallow in it. Stephanie comes in once, to talk about school and show me some pictures of her last ballet recital. Dad drops in with the Sunday funnies and the Sports section, and we talk baseball for a while. Being Dad, he can never drop a subject entirely, but he waits until we're done dissecting the White Sox game before he brings it up.

"Riley, I'm sorry if I've pushed you too hard, okay? I know you're going through a difficult time. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to, just keep in mind that I'm here to listen."

I smile and nod, and we move on to basketball.

In the evening, I briefly consider dropping a hint to Mom that some more little blue pills would be welcome. Only briefly, though. I know she wouldn't give me anything harmful, but my metabolism isn't normal anymore, and anything stronger than aspirin makes me nervous. Come to think of it, aspirin makes me nervous too. So I let Mom kiss me good night, and don't say anything as she turns the light off.

In my dream, I follow Adam into his lab. He tells me to walk, turn, stop, sit and I walk, turn, stop, sit, a puppet on invisible strings. The room is full of people in lab coats. Maggie Walsh is there, and Mom, and Buffy, and Mrs. Leopold from my fifth-grade history class, and Sergeant Olesky whom I haven't seen since boot camp, and a whole mess of other familiar faces. They're gathered around a metal table on which a body is stretched out, covered by a sheet. Maggie pulls the sheet down, and the monster beneath sits up. It's hideous, worse than Adam or Forrest. They must've made a special effort to track down the extra-ugly demons for the spare parts. But the face they used is mine.

For a change, I actually manage to wake up and catch myself before I tumble off the bed. Something to be grateful for, I suppose.

The next day, I realize there's something going on. Mom comes home from work early, lugging a couple of grocery bags, and she and Dad keep whispering to each other and exchanging meaningful looks whenever they think I'm not looking. Later, I see Mom laying out the pots in the kitchen, and I realize she's making tuna casserole, which is one of three edible things she can make, and I know we're having company for dinner.

"Who's coming over?" I ask Dad.

He manages to look furtive and smug at the same time. "A friend."

He'd probably tell me if I insisted, but that would take actual effort on my part.

By six o'clock the table is set with the good table cloth and wine glasses. I'm in the kitchen tossing the salad when the door bell rings.

"I'll get it!" Dad yells.

I come into the dining room at the same time Dad walks in with our dinner guest. I don't drop the salad bowl. I don't throw it at anyone's head either. I just stand very still until I can trust myself to speak.

"What the f-- what are you doing here?"

"Good to see you too, man." Graham grins at me from the doorway.

I can't imagine what he's doing here. Last time I saw him, he was heading out to visit his family in Phoenix. He's wearing neatly pressed khakis and a button-down shirt, and he looks cheerful and friendly and relaxed. Steph, who's already at the table, is gazing at him like he's a particularly rich dessert, and I suspect that the Leonardo DiCaprio clone from ballet class has just been forgotten. Graham beams at her, and at me, and at Mom, who's just come in from the living room. He's holding a white cardboard box stamped with the logo of one of the nicer local bakeries, and he hands this to Mom with a little bow.

"You must be Mrs. Finn. I'm Graham. We spoke on the phone."

Oh, have you now? I don't actually say anything, because I think I've caused enough scenes for the week, but something must show in my face, because Dad quickly steps up to take the salad bowl from me, and Mom announces in a too-bright voice that she's going to go get the dinner out of the oven. So I get a grip on my temper, and we all sit down to eat.

I watch Graham closely during the meal. He can be scarily likeable when he puts in the effort, and he's really going all out now. He doesn't have that aggressive charm that Forrest had, the kind that practically grabs you by the shirtfront and bullies you into liking him, but he's polite and soft-spoken and he eats three helpings of Mom's casserole, God save him. And he brought cheesecake. Not too surprisingly, he's an instant hit.

Why is he here? My parents were obviously expecting him, and they seem to have some idea of who he is. Did they ask him to come, or did he invite himself over somehow? And why didn't anybody tell me? It's bad enough when the people I work for tell me lies and conspire behind my back; I don't like to even consider the possibility that my friends and my family are doing it, too.

As soon as we're done eating, I jump up from my chair and haul Graham out of his.

"Come on, let me show you the back yard." And I lead him away, leaving a grumpy Steph to clear the table by herself.

The back yard has a lot of grass, a huge old beech tree with a tire swing, and a picnic table with a couple of benches. Graham sprawls on a bench, using the table for a backrest. I straddle the tire, which puts me too far away to slug him if he pisses me off.

"Okay, let's have it. What are you doing here?"

He meets my eyes with his usual placid expression. "Your folks are really nice."

"I'm aware of that," I snap. "I don't think you flew out from Arizona just to tell me this in case I haven't noticed. Come on, Graham, what gives?" An unpleasant thought occurs, and I can't help but voice it. "Did the brass send you? Are they keeping an eye on me? I've signed all their damned papers, what the hell else do they want?"

Graham's expression doesn't change, but I get the distinct feeling that my sanity has just been judged and found wanting. "Paranoid much?" he says.

"It's not paranoia if they're really after you."

"No one's after you, Riley. Chill. I called here a couple of days ago, just to chat. You were out. I spoke to your Mom. She was worried about you. So I thought I'd come and see for myself."

"What, just like that?"

He shrugs. "I had a window in my schedule."

"So why didn't my parents say anything to me?"

"Ask them. I thought they had."

I'm starting to see Dad's hand in this. He's always been the guy who wants to throw a surprise party for everybody's birthday. He probably thought I'd enjoy having a friend drop in unannounced. And a year ago, I would've. It's not Dad's fault I'm so overdosed on surprises these days.

I'm also starting to wonder if I'm being a jerk. If what Graham says is true -- and I've never known him to be a liar -- then he flew here from Phoenix on a couple of days' notice just to make sure I'm all right. And I'm not exactly reassuring him, am I?

"I'm sorry, man. It's not that I'm not glad to see you."

"Don't worry about it. So what do you do for fun on a Monday night in this party town?"

We drive down to DesMoines, to an Irish pub I know near the Drake campus, and spend the next few hours shooting pool in the back. Graham orders drinks, flirts with the waitress, punches up the sappiest, dopiest, country music songs on the juke box and makes fun of the lyrics. I nurse my one beer through the whole night, leaving myself sober enough to drive. Graham has a few, but he spaces them out. Clearly, getting wasted isn't on his agenda either.

It's so restful to hang out with someone I don't have to watch myself with. There's no classified information I have to withhold from Graham, no lies I have to tell and then keep track of, no need to worry that I'll accidentally slip up and blurt out the wrong thing. And he doesn't ask any questions or give me any worried, searching looks. It's great.

The restful feeling lasts until the bartender kicks us out so she can lock up. As we're crossing the parking lot to the car, I begin to admit to myself that this has all been a stalling exercise, and now that it's done, I'm going to have to go home and get into bed and get ready for another round with my subconscious. I look at Graham, who's hiding a yawn behind his hand.

"Let's go for a drive."

He looks at me like I've just suggested a trip to the moon. "Now?"

"What, you have a pressing appointment?"

He thinks about it for a bit and shrugs. "Okay."

We don't talk during the drive. Graham slumps in the passenger seat, his head turned toward the window, and I can't even see his face to tell if he's asleep or awake. I guide the car through random turns, no particular destination in mind, but it's not much of a surprise when we end up in the same abandoned cow pasture where I had my stand-off with a skunk just a few days ago.

I pull over and climb out of the car. Graham stays in his seat, rolling down the window to lean out.

"So this is your night spot of choice?" He looks around, taking in the grass and the sky and the dirt road. "No wonder you grew up such a party animal."

"Yeah, the fun never stops around here." I lean against the hood and stretch my legs. The stars are all hidden behind the clouds tonight, and the air smells like rain. I don't think we'll be hanging out here much longer. But the cool breeze on my face feels good.

After a while I hear the door open and shut as Graham gets out of the car. He walks around to where I can see him, examining the ground dubiously.

"Am I going to step into a cow pie or something?"

"To have cow pies," I tell him patiently, "you must first have cows. Surely, even in Phoenix people know these things."

He doesn't appear to be listening to me. "I bet there's mosquitoes here. And tics."

"And skunks."

"What are we doing here, exactly?"

"Nothing. That's the point."

"Just checking."

He wanders around in circles for a while, still peering at the ground as if waiting for a stealth cow pie to attack him, then comes back to the car and leans against the door on the passenger side.

"So," he says, "are your parents exaggerating, or do you really never sleep anymore?"

"They're exaggerating."

He looks meaningfully at his watch. "I'm not so sure about that."

Okay, so it's almost five in the morning. Can I help it if I'm not tired? "Graham, if you want to go back to the house and sleep, just say so."

"We're not talking about me."

"We're not talking about me either."

Graham just shrugs and waits. And waits. And waits. I know he's just trying to annoy me into breaking the silence. It works.

"I've had some nightmares, okay? Not exactly a surprise. Don't tell me you're been sleeping like a baby the past couple of weeks."

"No. But I've got ways to go to your level of wreckage."

"I'm not a wreck."

"Have you looked in the mirror lately?"

I haven't, actually. And I'm not going to now, either. I fold my arms across my chest and stare straight ahead, determined to make him be the one who gets annoyed into speaking this time. But Graham shows no signs of annoyance, and when he does speak it's to ask yet another question.

"What do you dream about?"

My first impulse is not to answer, but then I think maybe I want to. Of all the people in Ankeny right now, he's the only one I can tell. And the psych student in me knows it's probably a good idea.

"Forrest. Maggie Walsh. Adam. A lot of other stuff gets mixed in, but mostly it's them." I describe the last couple of dreams in as much detail as I can recall. I sneak occasional glances at Graham as I talk, to judge his reaction, but he looks exactly the same as always. I don't know how the hell he does that.

I don't know what he's going to make of the stuff I'm telling him, either. And I'm not so sure I want to know. Standing in an Iowa pasture in the wee hours of the morning being psychoanalyzed by my best friend isn't a situation I'm especially well-prepared to deal with. Does it feel as bizarre to Graham as it does to me? I decide it must. Not that he'd ever show it, but it makes me feel better to think that I'm not the only one who's totally weirded out.

"What was it like?" he asks. "When Adam activated your chip."

Again, I think about not telling him, and again I decide I want to. It's hard to find the right words, though, particularly when just thinking about it makes my stomach churn and my hands go clammy.

"It was like... being trapped in a padded cell inside my own head. I kept throwing myself at the walls, but I couldn't get out. My body was doing all these things I didn't want it to do, and I couldn't make it stop." My voice cracks a little. I turn around, brace my hands against the roof of the car, and duck my head down between my arms. "I just... I couldn't get out."

"You did, though," Graham points out quietly.

"Eventually." I rub my shoulder, feeling the ridge of the scar through my shirt. "Almost too late. If I hadn't..."

"You did. If and almost don't count." Graham walks around to my side of the car. He stands close, but not crowding, and speaks even more quietly than usual. "I don't think I could've done what you did."

"You would've if you had to."

"I don't know. I'm glad I didn't have to find out. But a lot of people are alive now because you came through. Me, for one. And your girl."

"But not Forrest."

"Is that what this is all about? There was nothing you could do for Forrest. He was dead when you got there."

I shake my head. "I killed him."

"Adam killed him. You killed a monster in a lab. You know this Riley, why are you--"

"You weren't there. You didn't see him. He spoke to me. He remembered who I was, who he was--"

"Riley..."

"He said Adam was going to make me like him-- like them. And that we'd be fighting on the same side again."

"Riley..."

"It wasn't just some anonymous monster with Forrest's face, it was him, he knew who he was, he--"

"Riley!" Graham doesn't actually yell -- he never yells -- but there's a definite edge in his voice, more than enough to shut me up so he can speak. "This is Forrest we're talking about. He hated demons. He'd never want to be one. He'd never want to make you into one. I don't care what that thing said to you, or how much it remembered, or what it sounded like, it wasn't Forrest. And you're insulting his memory by even thinking that it was. Don't do this to him, Ry. Don't do this to yourself."

This has got to be the longest speech I've ever heard Graham make. I'm so thrown by it, I don't even know how to respond. And he's still talking.

"Look, I know I wasn't there. I'm not going to pretend what it was like for you, seeing Forrest and Walsh turned into those... things. But don't make it worse than it has to be. You and Buffy saved a lot of lives. Be proud of that, instead of beating yourself up over shit that isn't your fault."

I laugh, sort of. "Easier said than done."

"Riley--" Graham bites off whatever it is he was going to say, shaking his head. "Never mind. Nothing is easily done at five in the morning. How about we go home before your folks file a missing person report?"

4

----------------------------------------------------------

Are you real or not?
It's a fine line
Are you ready or not
For the light of day?
Are you real or not?
These are strange times
And I don't want to live this way

----------------------------------------------------------

The sky is just starting to brighten by the time we finally stagger home. The house is dark and quiet, but as we putter around in the living room I hear a door opening upstairs, followed by some footsteps shuffling back and forth and then the door closing again. I hope it's just Mom or Dad being woken by the noise, rather than them staying up all night waiting for me to come in.

I try to tell Graham that he should take the guest room while I crash on the sofa, but he's not having any, so I trudge upstairs. The Tom Clancy book I couldn't finish two nights ago is still there, so I pick it up again. It's still dull. I make myself read it anyway, even though my attention keeps wandering and I sometimes have to read the same paragraph five times over before I actually absorb what it says. It takes me two hours to read twenty pages.

Sometime around seven o'clock I start hearing morning noises from the rest of the house. Steph gets up for school; Mom gets up to make sure Steph gets up; Dad, who's not teaching today and could sleep till noon if he wanted to, gets up for no reason whatsoever. At one point somebody tries the guest room door, but I locked it when I came in, so they just jiggle the knob for a few seconds and then go away. I make myself go back to my book, and read another thirty pages before I finally come downstairs.

Graham is alone in the kitchen, communing with a mug of coffee. He's wearing sweats and a ratty UC Sunnydale shirt, and he looks totally beat. Which isn't too surprising, considering that he flew half-way across the country and then stayed up all night listening to me bitch.

"Morning, Ry." He moves his chair over so I can get by. "Your parents went to Huxley. Said they'd be back after lunch."

I acknowledge the information with a grunt as I dig in the fridge for something edible. When I turn around with a carton of milk and a couple of apples, Graham is watching me curiously.

"So did you really try to brain your Dad with a coffee mug?"

Oh, for God's sake... I slam the milk carton down on the table. "What is it with everyone? Do you all just sit around and talk about me behind my back, or what?"

"Yeah." Graham nods and sips his coffee, unfazed by my outburst. "We do it 'cause we're horrible, evil people who don't care about you. But you knew that, right?"

It's really hard to keep a tantrum going when Graham is sitting there being a rock. My anger dissolves into embarrassment. I cover it up by sitting down and pouring myself a glass of milk, carefully not looking at Graham the entire time.

"Sorry. I seem to be on a bit of a hair trigger these days."

"I've noticed. So did you really?"

"Did I really what?"

"Try to knock your dad's head off?"

"Apparently." I pinch the bridge of my nose, because my head is starting to seriously hurt. "I don't actually remember it. I think I was a little crazy that night."

"Yeah. Your mom said you didn't know where you were... and that you thought she was Buffy."

I give him my best threatening glare, which at the moment probably isn't much. "I swear, if you try to get Freudian with me, I'll slug you."

"God forbid. But seriously, what happened?"

How am I supposed to explain it without sounding completely insane? I know Graham isn't going to go all judgmental on me, but I still get self-conscious, and it's making me fidgety. I start peeling an apple and put it down unfinished; move the salt and pepper shakers and the sugar bowl around on the table until I have them arranged just so; pick up the carton to pour myself more milk, and realize I haven't touched what's already in the glass...

As a method of demonstrating my sanity, this is not working too well. Graham doesn't actually say anything, but he starts to frown a little. I clasp my hands together and put them in my lap, trying to keep still, but five seconds of it is about all I can take. Oh, to hell with it. I abandon all pretense and get up to pace.

"I don't know. I was... disoriented. Kept thinking it was the night Professor Walsh died, and Buffy was taking me to Xander's place 'cause I was sick. Couldn't figure out why the basement was upstairs all of a sudden." I stop to rearrange the canisters in the spice rack, realize what I'm doing, and start pacing again. "Don't ask me what triggered it. Stress, lack of sleep, bad reaction to Mom's sleeping pills--"

"Maybe you were having a flashback," Graham suggests. "A side effect of whatever Walsh had given you?"

I snort. "I doubt she was slipping me blotter acid when I wasn't looking."

"We don't know what she was slipping you. It's not the same stuff the rest of us got -- I don't heal any faster than normal." Graham slides a little lower in his chair, stretches his legs out, and folds his arms across his stomach. I've seen him look just like that, brainstorming a paper topic the night before it's due or listening to one of Walsh's graduate seminars: all slouchy and relaxed on the outside, but totally focused on the inside. "Have you noticed any other changes? Flying, x-ray vision?"

"Ha-ha." I think back to my experiments with the hotel minibar back in Washington. "I don't get drunk as easily as I used to... and sober up faster. No hangovers. Other than that..." I think it over, rubbing the back of my neck for inspiration. "Working out is no different... well, maybe a little easier... I don't seem to ache quite so much afterward... that's pretty much it."

"Okay. So you've got a shiny new metabolism that kicks into high gear to heal you when you're hurt or sober you up when you're wasted, right?"

"I guess."

"So how does it react to sleep deprivation?"

"It--" I start answering, but break off because I have absolutely no idea what to say next. I've never even considered the question. "I haven't a clue."

Graham slouches even lower, watching me with narrowed eyes. "When did you start having the nightmares?"

"The first night in Washington, just before the debriefing."

"Which means it's been a couple of weeks now. And you've been getting how many hours of sleep a night? Two? Three?"

"More or less." I consider it for a moment. "Mostly less. Sometimes I just keep myself awake all night. Less stress that way."

"So are you tired?"

I open my mouth to tell him not to ask stupid questions, and then close it again, because it's actually not a stupid question at all. "No. I'm not. I'm not tired at all. In fact, I'm kind of--"

"Bouncing off the walls?"

"Yeah."

We both stop to consider the implications of that. At least I hope Graham is considering. My thoughts are bouncing off the walls along with the rest of me. The kitchen suddenly seems stuffy and claustrophobic, and I have to fight the urge to run outside. I brace myself against the counter, trying to control my breathing as I listen to what Graham is saying.

"If you were a scientist trying to build a better soldier, and you didn't want anyone to know about it, not even the guy you were experimenting on, how would you go about it?"

I don't know. I don't want to know. I don't want to think about this. There's not enough air in here, I need to get out, except I'm not sure there's enough air anywhere, and if I tried to leave Graham would probably come after me anyway. He's on a roll now.

"You know what I'd do?" he says. "I'd go for little incremental improvements. Make my guy just a bit stronger. Make him heal faster. Make him resistant to poisons and drugs -- except what he's getting from me, of course. And I'd definitely make him able to stay awake for long stretches without collapsing."

"No." I can barely choke the word out. He's wrong. He has to be wrong. Maggie Walsh is dead, dead twice over, and the idea that she's still controlling me somehow, maybe forever, is unbearable. Stress, nightmares, bad memories -- I can deal with that. It sucks, but it's temporary. But how do you solve a problem that's been hardwired into you?

Graham goes on as if I hadn't spoken. "Okay, so memory lapses, flashbacks, violent outbursts and weird reactions to sleeping pills are not what I'd call an improvement. But Walsh was making it up as she went along. She probably hadn't gotten all the bugs out of the program ye--"

"I am not programmed!" I slam my hands down on the counter hard enough to make all the dishes rattle in the cabinet. It feels pretty good, so I do it a couple more times. I'm just getting a good rhythm going when Graham jumps out of the chair and grabs me by the shoulders. I try to shake him off, but he's got a pretty good grip, and I'm losing it completely. He steers me to a chair and sits me down, and all I can do is mutter "I'm not programmed, I'm not programmed" over and over again.

"I know you're not, man," Graham is standing behind me, so I can't see his face, but he sounds a bit shaken. His hands are still on my shoulders, holding me down in the chair. "Bad choice of words. Sorry."

"I'm not programmed. I'm not programmed. I'm not--"

"Riley." Graham gives me a shake. "Ry. Don't freak on me." He keeps talking in a low voice until I settle down, then comes around to sit facing me. "Look, we both know Walsh went and played God with you when you weren't looking. No point pretending it didn't happen. But if you couldn't think for yourself, we'd all be body parts in Adam's zombie army right now. So chill, ok? You're not programmed."

"Yeah. Right." I rub one hand over my face. "So what's worse, being brainwashed or being crazy?"

"You're not crazy, either. But you're going to be if you keep on like this."

I can't argue with that. I know I'm in a bad place. Trouble is, I can't see my way out of it. I came home to recover, but it's only gotten worse, and I don't know where else I can run. I look at Graham sitting there looking sympathetic, and I hate him for being so cool and collected when I'm falling to pieces. I also hate myself for what I'm about to say, but I say it anyhow.

"Tell me what to do."

So much for the new, independent Riley Finn who doesn't need to take orders from anybody.

Graham just shrugs. "That's your call. I'll tell you one thing, though: don't try to figure it out now. Get some rest and think it over with a clear head."

"Hello? If I could do that, we wouldn't have a problem in the first place."

"Try. Stop running around all day, stop sitting up with the lights on all night. Just... stop."

"I don't know if I can."

"Find out," he says, then gets up and walks off, leaving me alone in the kitchen. By the time I come out after him, having finished my breakfast, he's sprawled out on the living room couch, dead asleep. Lucky bastard.

I go out into the back yard to get some air. The day is hot and still, not a hint of a breeze. The rain that threatened during the night never materialized, though there are still a few clouds dotting the sky. I lie on my back on top of the picnic table and listen to the bees humming over the lawn and the occasional car going by in the distance. The sun is warm on my face, and the air smells of honeysuckle. I close my eyes and listen to my own breathing, and try to think about everything that Graham has said.

It's all guess work, of course, and I have no way of knowing how much of it is true. On the surface, it seems to make sense. Maggie Walsh has done a pretty good job rewiring me into her idea of the perfect soldier, but it would be na´ve to think there'd be no side effects. Especially since she didn't get to stick around to finish the experiment. In a way, I almost want it to be true, just so I have somebody to blame. I guess that answers the question I posed to Graham -- I'd rather be brainwashed than insane. Not that either option is giving me warm fuzzy feelings...

Then again, having it be true doesn't really solve anything. Maggie Walsh isn't filling my dreams with monsters; I'm doing that all by myself. And if leaving Sunnydale didn't solve that, I don't know what will.

For the thousandth time this week, I find myself thinking of Buffy. And missing her. And feeling that familiar tug-of-war between the part of me that's sure she can fix everything and the part that insists it's not fair to saddle her with that burden. In the past, I'd shoved these thoughts aside every time they came up, but now I find myself mulling them over, unwilling to just drop the subject.

I came to Ankeny to make myself normal again for her, but I've never actually stopped to figure out what normal is for me, now. It's not the kid I was before I joined the Army, or even the soldier I was before the Initiative got its hands on me. Those guys are gone, and the man I am now... the man I am now doesn't belong here anymore.

I open my eyes and lift my head, looking around. Everything I see is old and familiar, a reminder of my childhood. I grew up in this house, in this yard. I love this place, love my family. But I'm a stranger here now, with secrets I have to keep hidden and knowledge I can't share. If Graham hadn't come here, there'd be no one I could talk to at all.

The sun is in my face, so I close my eyes again, rubbing my cheeks with the back of my hand. Not that there's anyone around to see me, and if there was I could blame the tears on the glare, but old macho habits die hard. I can almost see Buffy frowning at me, telling me not to be so damned Teutonic. She's the strongest person I know, but she was never afraid to sit down and have a good cry.

I wish I was with her right now. I don't care where. L.A., Sunnydale, Outer Mongolia. Here would be nice, but she doesn't belong here any more than I do. Though I suppose she'll have to meet the folks sooner or later... I wonder what they'll make of her... I wonder what Buffy's mom thought of me... I suppose she was just glad I'm not a vampire. Look at the bright side, Mom, he might be a crazy ex-drug addict with no job, but at least he doesn't drink blood...

"Riley?" Someone is tapping me, very gently, on the shoulder. I blink and rub my eyes, feeling disoriented.

"Mom?"

"Sorry." She smiles at me. "I hate to wake you, but you're getting a rather bad sunburn here."

"Huh?" Oh, that's right, I'm outside, aren't I? I look at my watch and realize that I've been out here for over two hours. Asleep. Baking in the sun. The skin on my face feels tight and hot, and hurts when I touch it. "Oops."

"Come on." Mom looks both amused and sympathetic as she watches me hoist myself off the table. "You'd better put something on that."

The bathroom mirror confirms my worst fears: my face and neck are bright red, from the top of my forehead right down to the collar of my t-shirt. I find a bottle of aloe gel in the medicine cabinet, and am slathering it on when Graham appears in the doorway, smirking at me.

"You know, when I told you to go get some rest, that isn't quite what I meant."

"Shut up."

"You look like a tomato."

"Shut up."

"I bet you're going to peel, too."

I slam the bathroom door in his face.

He's waiting in the hallway when I come out a couple of minutes later. He's still smirking, but his eyes are serious.

"How're you doing?" he asks.

I scowl at him. "I think my face is going to fall off."

"It's no great loss. But that's not what I'm talking about."

"I know." I lean against the wall across from him. "I've been thinking. I'm in the wrong place, aren't I?"

He drums his fingers against his leg. "You tell me."

"I should be dealing with all this in Sunnydale. Here... here isn't really home anymore. It's just a place to hide. And hiding doesn't work."

Graham has no immediate reply to that. We just sort of stand there for a while, not quite looking at each other, and I'm trying to think of a graceful exit line when he finally speaks.

"I couldn't stay in Phoenix, either. It was nice and all, but I couldn't talk to anyone. And it drove me nuts, the way everyone just kept going about their lives as if everything was safe and normal. It doesn't work that way anymore, not for us."

"I notice you managed to figure it out without having a nervous breakdown first."

He shrugs. "I wasn't there for the really bad shit. You're doing okay. Except for looking like a tomato."

"You're not gonna let that go, are you?"

"Nope." He pushes away from the wall and claps me on the shoulder. "Come on. The Diamondbacks are on ESPN in a couple of minutes. Your dad's making the popcorn. We can have some beer and be manly, and you can pretend you're not pathetically grateful to me. Can you live with that?"

Yeah. I suppose I can.

The End




Riley Finn, Buffy Summers, Willow Rosenberg, Rupert Giles, Angel, Graham, Forrest, Dr. Maggie Walsh, Adam, and any other character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are copyright © 2000 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. This story and all original characters are copyright © 2000 Marina Frants. Epigraphs from the Warren Zevon songs "Fistful of Rain" (copyright © 2000 Artemis Records), "Quite Ugly One Morning" (copyright © 1991 Giant Records), "Poisonous Lookalike" (copyright © 1995 Giant Records), and "Real or Not" (copyright © 1994 Music Corporation of America [BMI]).

This story takes place shortly after "Restless," the fourth-season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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