TITLE: Home From the Great Escape
AUTHOR: Cynthia Liskow
SPOILERS: Through Season 6's "Gone," especially "Wrecked" and "Smashed." NOT "As You Were"
SUMMARY: "She's alive, Riley. Buffy's alive."On his way home from his jungle epiphany, Riley stops in Sunnydale for closure. Silly boy.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF INSPIRATION: Over the summer, I read this great set of stories by the Sunnydale Slayers, called "The Darkest Dawn." This story was inspired by Christina L. Kamnikar's contribution to that work, "Letter Read 20 Times by the Light of a Single Candle in Belize," and assumes that Riley received Xander's letter. If you want a great read, go check out these stories, especially Christina's. They're just ... neat.
THANKS: As always, to Rachel and Laura for giving me the benefit of the doubt when I try new-to-me things, and for help along the way. How many times can I say that ya'll're the best?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: For the purposes of this story, and because no one at Mutant Enemy has said otherwise as far as I can tell, I'm assuming that "Gone" took place almost immediately after "Wrecked," rather than the three torturous weeks it took to get from one to the other in our reality. Thus, I declare this story set a few days before Christmas, 2001.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, Joss & Co own all, I'm only playing, making no money, please don't sue me, blah blah blitty blah, I'm so dull, bring me a scone.
The sun was just breaking over the eastern horizon as the battered yet ever-optimistic welcome sign ushered Riley Finn back into Sunnydale. He could feel the day warming up behind him as he crested the last hill, reflexively easing off the accelerator as the road changed from feeder highway to residential. Living on the Hellmouth had taught him how to break rules, but it still wasn't instinct. His plan wasn't fully formed yet, so Riley took a preliminary pass through town, surprised to be surprised at how little it had changed. The "For Lease" signs were on different empty stores; an indy bookstore he'd favored had turned into an indy coffee shop, probably one more than Sunnydale could support. At the far end of town was what looked like a demolition site--maybe a new hotel or industrial complex that had gone belly up before it'd gotten finished. He made a neat three-point turn at the teetering fence and headed back into town.
Through the permanently rolled-down window of the piece-of-shit pickup he'd gotten for nearly nothing on his afternoon in LA, Riley caught a whiff of freshly brewing coffee and impulsively swung into the parking lane in front of the Espresso Pump. The same pre-med student was at the front counter, and she gave him a flickering squint when he ordered his usual drink, but didn't recognize the usuality of it. Riley tipped her and smiled, glad that she'd survived and hoping she'd make it to graduation.
The winter sun was fully up now, and Riley paused in the doorway to enjoy the dry warmth of it on his face. He was tempted to grab a table and lounge over his luxuriously non-Army coffee but decided against it. He didn't want to run into any of the crew coming in from patrol. He wasn't ready to talk to Buffy's friends--who were almost his friends, once.
Riley wasn't sure of many things these days; too much had happened too fast. The few things he had worked out, however, had brought him a sense of calm he hadn't felt since childhood.
He knew, for instance, that he needed to deal with Buffy first, to lower some heavy burdens from his shoulders and lift some of the weight he'd laid on hers. He needed to make peace with her, with himself, with what they'd made and mangled. He needed to leave the part of her he'd secreted away in his heart--and maybe some flowers--on her grave.
Then, after that, he'd go see the gang and say the goodbyes he'd skipped last year in his bullheaded and brokenhearted flight outta Dodge.
Closure, he thought and winced at the rattle of the window trapped within the frame as he hauled the truck's heavy door shut. Professor Walsh covered that topic in the third of her lectures on death and grieving. He'd read and graded hundreds of essays on the subject--most of them about why a proper burial is essential to getting over the death of a family pet. Very few of those papers, or even Maggie's lectures, were actually helpful to him now.
There's just not much of a frame of reference for loving and losing the Slayer, he thought, not to mention for dealing with the complications that a couple of apocalypses, two love-sick vampires, and a nasty bloodplay habit had added to the situation.
Riley'd realized that first night, after he'd read Xander's letter for the twentieth time, that none of his training or education was going to be of any help at all. Letting go of Buffy was one battle he was going to have to fight on his own.
At the familiar stab of pain and regret in his chest, Riley tore his thoughts away from Buffy. Focus on the situation at hand, Finn, he reminded himself. The rest will come soon enough. He turned the key and let the reluctant engine turn over for a few seconds before shoving the truck into gear and easing into the early morning traffic.
Even the rat-trap motel he remembered from nearly two years ago, where Giles had been un-demonized, was heaven after a year of his unit's base camp in Belize: Three men to a humid, sticky two-man tent on ground that was never quite level or dry; food that was so bland and textureless as to be unidentifiable; quinine-flavored water against the malaria... Boot camp and Special Ops training had prepared the men for those conditions, but Riley realized that he'd been spoiled by the Initiative. Sure, they'd drugged him, murdered his best friend, tried to do the same to his lover on several occasions, and made him into a chip-controlled pawn in their human-demon hybrid army, but, really, the setup at Lowell House had been cush.
Nonchalantly running the cockroaches out of the shower--they were almost cute they were so small--Riley took the longest shower in recent memory. After the four-day hike out of the jungle, two more days in the back of a 40-year-old transport truck, and finally a cargo plane into Mexico City, he'd been too tired to do much more than collapse on the bunk the base outside LA had provided him. The next day had been typical military administrative bullshit. By the time he worked through that, he'd been too eager to disentangle himself from that particular batch of morons to do much more than change into civvies, grab some basic supplies, and chase down the truck before heading out for Sunnydale.
As he washed away the road dirt and scrubbed hard enough to scrape another layer of Central American jungle demon grit out of his pores, Riley planned his day. There were twelve cemeteries in Sunnydale, but with some thought, he could narrow the list by half. Buffy'd known them all intimately, and Riley knew she'd had her preferences. He worked out the most efficient approach, then began plotting out search patterns for each cemetery. The water sheeted off his chest, meandered through the hair on his legs, explored the spaces between his toes.
When his mental map was firm, he let himself breathe in the steam for several heartbeats, then emphatically shut the water off and grabbed a threadbare towel.
Cleaner than he'd been in months, Riley dried off and dressed quickly, smiling slightly at the freedom he found in his choice of clothes. No drab greens; no turtlenecks. No woman, man, or personal demon dictated his wardrobe these days. He'd been vamp-free for almost four months, and the scars on his arms and neck were fading.
He only wished...
His hair, still Army-short, was dry by the time he slammed the room's hollow door and slipped the key into his hip pocket. Squaring his broad shoulders, Riley set a quick pace toward Buffy's favorite graveyard.
He found the grave by accident, cutting through an errant branch of the north woods that snuck between Shady Hills and Woodland Acres cemeteries. A willow tree, misplaced among the oaks and pines, caught his eye, and Riley realized with an eerie shudder of deja vu that they'd picnicked in this spot that happy summer after Adam, before Dracula. He stepped closer to the undulating tree, putting a hand on its solid, cragged trunk, and let the sunlight dance across his face through the swaying branches.
Nostalgic, Riley followed the tree's curve, indulging himself. Sunnydale was like this--random spots of beauty and peace amid the death and chaos, he thought, and then he saw the lone headstone and knew immediately he'd found her.
As the realization hit him, Riley took an instinctive step backward, the rubber of his soles catching on a root and making him stumble.
Get a grip, he told himself. It's a grave. Go looking in cemeteries, and you're bound to come across a few.
But he wasn't in the cemetery, and that struck him as odd. Xander and the others must have had their reasons. Maybe they just didn't want her to rest where she'd worked. Or maybe she'd planned ahead, and asked for this.
Never one to disobey a direct order, at least not without giving it a whole hell of a lot of thought, Riley drew a deep breath, got a grip, and closed the space between him and Buffy in four long, sure strides. He hunkered next to the granite marker, taking in the epitaph, letting the ache in his sinuses burn. Xander'd had a hand in choosing the words to lay at her head, Riley was sure of that. They made you smile through your tears, and that's what Buffy would have wanted.
"Okay," he said mostly to himself and then sniffed and dropped out of his squat, folding his legs and cutting short a sniffle with another deep, bracing breath.
"Okay," he repeated, and then started for real. "Buffy, I know that we didn't part on the best of terms, and that was mostly my fault..." Riley's voice scraped against the otherwise peaceful day, making him grimace and stammer to a halt. Sheepishly, he looked around him, embarrassed at being self-conscious. He was alone, though, so he sucked it up and tried again.
"Huh. This is harder than I thought. Or different. I dunno." He pulled at a piece of grass growing out of the slight slope where the relatively new grave had almost flattened out to match the terrain around it. "In my head, this sounds a lot less stupid than, you know, sitting and talking to a hunk of rock, a patch of grass. I mean, I know you're not really in there. Not your soul, anyway. But I don't really have anywhere else to talk to, so I guess I'll just keep going."
Well, he thought, if you feel this stupid about it, you could always just think it.
"But thinking--it's not the same. It's like praying, you know? My mom always used to get mad at me for praying out loud in church. I got really good at just mouthing the words, you know? Hiding behind my folded hands. Because thinking it isn't the same as saying it, and some things are really important to say. Out loud."
He laughed, suddenly, and felt his brain adjust and accept the situation and release its grip on his sense of personal dignity.
"You always did turn me into a babbling idiot, Buffy. I guess some things don't change."
The tumult in him stilled again, and he pulled a leg up to rest his arms on, settling in more comfortably.
"But a lot of other things do change, don't they?" he asked, writing her name in the grass with a fingertip. "Xander wrote me in May. I didn't get the letter until almost August, but ... God, I don't know where to start. I mean, obviously, the main point of his letter was to tell me that you were ... gone, and that nearly killed me, Buffy. But now I've had some time to deal with that--I'm not saying I'm over it, but I just want to tell you that he also told me... Oh, hell. This ... It's like, before I can tell you I'm sorry you're gone, I have to tell you how sorry I am about your mother. First things first, I guess."
The sweet scent of mowed lawn wafted up to him on a breeze, and he looked down to see a significant pile of grass shreds in front of him.
"Sorry." He apologized automatically, brushing his hands on his jeans.
Move on, he thought, it's just grass. It's not like you're laying sacrifices at her grave.
"Xander didn't say how it happened, but I'm thinking it must have been the tumor. I know how much she meant to you." Riley paused, forcing himself to be honest. "At least, I think I do. More and more, I see that I may not have known you at all. But sometimes it feels like just the opposite. That I did know you, but I psyched myself into thinking I didn't, or maybe you did the psyching. Anyway, I do know that you loved your mom more than anything, except maybe Dawn. And I'm sorry that you lost her. And I'm glad that your friends were there for you. Because even if I don't know you as well as I wanted to, I know that Xander and Willow and Giles... They'd never let you go through anything like that alone. I just hope that they helped you the way I couldn't, and that you let them."
He stopped to breathe for a minute, to see if that was all, if there was anything else he needed to say. Just one more thing.
"You know this already, but your mom was great. I really cared about her, not just because I had to suck up because of her being your mom. But just as a person... She was smart, and funny, and she loved you so much, and that showed. Anyway, just another one of things I need to say out loud."
The leg he was sitting on was falling asleep, so Riley got up and walked the blood back into his foot while he sorted through his mental checklist.
"I'm clean now," he said, still getting used to the phrase. "It'll be four months on Christmas." Riley wasn't sure what else to say, but when he started, he found it hard to stop.
"It was hard, at first. To give it up. To give you up. I've gotten enough space from it now that I can see it's a good thing, in a way, that Spike set us up like that, even if it did mean that I wasn't around to help you in the end. The way I was going, I probably wouldn't have been around to help anyway. You were right, Buffy, I was on a fast track to getting myself dead.
"At first it was enough that they just consumed me. That seemed like enough of a dark side to catch your attention. But you never noticed. How many nights did you spend with me naked, right in front of you? Even that last time... God, I can see you, looking up at me as I made love to you, and in the middle of it, I realized that you were only *looking* at me. You wouldn't see me, wouldn't let me in, even when I was right there, right inside you. You didn't see me at all, and that just made me want it more. If Spike hadn't clued you in, I'm pretty sure I'd be dead now. Probably undead, 'cause that might have made me dark enough to love."
Left over hurt and anger clogged Riley's throat, making his voice thick and wavy. This was not why he came here, to fight with her. It was too late to fight, and even if it weren't, Riley was fairly certain it wouldn't have changed things. Even if what Xander'd written to him was true and she had come after him that night, he wasn't sure they would have made it. Between her mother, and Dawn, and that demon chick, Glory, Buffy wouldn't have been able to deal with her junkie of a boyfriend, too. And after going through the hell of withdrawal down in the jungle, Riley knew that the number one thing he wouldn't have been able to be was exactly what he'd wanted so much to be--strong enough for Buffy to lean on. If she'd been in a mindset to lean, that is, and all signs pointed to that being a long shot.
So. She'd been right from the very beginning. They were doomed. No matter what way he turned it in his brain, there weren't more than three ways he could see their relationship ending, and none of those included both of them alive and/or happily reunited.
Shit, this was so not what he'd wanted to muck through when he'd decided to come here. This was the stuff he was supposed to have figured out and worked through in the jungle. He was supposed to be here now, strong and dignified, forgiving and forgivable, on his way to being whole again, useful again, loveable again. He wanted to be the man that the young Riley Finn--strapping farm boy whose mother was proud of him and who went to church every Sunday, who was bright and ambitious enough to go out in the world and make a difference--the man that the Riley Finn who left Iowa a lifetime ago should have grown into. Would have, too, if the various and sundry demons of the world hadn't gotten to him; hadn't gotten to his country and commanders, his mentor, his lover, his best friend, and through all of them, burrowed into his soul and festered there.
Riley slumped back on to the grass and knocked his forehead against his knees three, four times, willing back the salty sting in his eyes. He'd cried enough. More than he ever had, even as a kid--especially as a kid. He rubbed his nose across his sleeve to stop it running before he had to sniffle and then pulled a deep breath that was still a lot wetter than he'd've liked.
"Right." He caught himself halfway through a sigh and turned it into a whistle, one of those that Wiley Coyote makes as he plummets to the canyon floor. "Sorry. That wasn't where I meant that to end up."
It took a few seconds of sorting to remember where he'd meant for that train of thought to lead him. Oh, right. The Vamps Anonymous Twelve-Step.
"Anyway... Yeah, I've been on the wagon close to four months now. You know, I left here on that 'copter thinking I'd never let a vamp nearer to me than the length of whatever wood I was jamming through its heart. That lasted me all the way to Mexico City--about two days. By that time, I was itching, like my veins were too tight, like my body'd gotten used to living at half capacity, and now it couldn't take a full tank. I thought I was gonna bust open. And then there's the whole other side of it, the side that's hard to talk about with you, with anyone. It's like..."
What could he say? He knew now, from talking to other junkies, that it's like any addiction. The cravings are physical and real, they make you ache in every joint, make you sweat and shake and puke and double over with cramps so bad you think you could teach Montezuma a thing or two about revenge. And even when you aren't falling apart with the sickness, you're thinking about it.
Riley used to think he was addicted to Buffy. She made him hum all over, just being in the room with her. He could drink her in all night and still be parched in the morning. Now, though... That love--which took him over and simultaneously soothed and set him afire, which forced him recognize his lines between right and wrong, the gray, shadowed areas he'd never noticed between Good and Evil--even at its most frustrating and soul-wrenching and demon-obsessing lows, that wasn't addiction. It led him there, true, he'll give Love that point, but Love Eternal had nothing on a good old fashioned suck habit.
"Anyway, I didn't make it through one night in Mexico City. Funny how easy vamps are to find when you know where to look. I don't think it took me more than twenty minutes to find one who could do the trick, and then I was all done with proving you wrong, showing you that I could do without you or the whores. And the thing is, they're always around, even in Middle of Nowhere Central America. And they're always hungry."
Thinking about them in this much detail wasn't doing Riley any favors. He could feel his thighs shaking, just enough to remind him that clean was only a state of mind. His blood wasn't all the way free of the filth; it still remembered, still ached as it trudged through his veins. He hated that he still craved them. He was clean, damn it. Done. Free was a different state of mind, though; free was something he'd have to reach a day at a time.
The slight quake in his legs was turning to a burn and spreading. Riley curbed the urge to excuse himself to Buffy as he diverted his attention from her. Discipline was the key. Katz had taught him that. It wasn't a new lesson for an Army man, but Riley'd had to fight every sinew into submission at the beginning. He'd always been fit, reveled in pushing his body to the limit, taken pride that teetered on vanity in keeping it in nearly perfect condition, but the routine Katz helped him establish wasn't about bulk or strength or tone. It was about putting his mind back in control of his body when his body was threatening mutiny.
As he closed his eyes and tried to clear enough clutter from his mind to allow his inner focus to sharpen, he was thankful that he'd moved past the point of having to chant aloud. Talking to Buffy's headstone was awkward enough, but intoning his little mantra atop her grave was pushing it. What little pride was left in him could do without the extra blows.
Riley'd learned that he couldn't force his mind to empty completely. Breath control helped flush away the extraneous, but he usually ended up with one or two thoughts or images that stuck with him, so he let them stay and incorporated them into his meditation, exploring them as the simple words trickled through him, convincing his body of what his brain knew.
Mind controls body. Cleanse the mind and the body follows.
The image that stood out today was of Katz himself, putting his elemental muscle-and-bone frame through the movements he was teaching Riley--that Riley was working through now--so gracefully that he appeared to be dancing. Riley owed Pete Katz his life He had a life to rebuild because of the twitchy, acerbic man who'd recognized Riley for the addict he was. Katz'd been waiting outside when Riley'd hit bottom in a cave dug under the tropical trees whose canopy allowed the vamps to roam freely any hour of the day.
As Buffy'd predicted, Riley'd finally stumbled into the vampire who wasn't interested in turning a regular trick. He'd happily taken Riley's money but made a full-course meal of him anyway. The memory was fuzzy and confusing, but Riley remembered the exact moment the fear hit him, when he realized that the vamp wasn't pulling out, and that he was too weak to shove him off. When he realized he wanted to live.
He still couldn't explain how it happened, but Riley had another startlingly clear memory of blinding, searing pain as the vampire exploded into his eyes. Then there was an indeterminable time filled with dusty, arid retching and the slow agony of his vision clearing--the tears his sucked-dry body reluctantly produced were so concentrated that it felt like salt crystals were scraping across his wounded eyeballs. He remembered the feeling of dry heaves turning into sobs that ripped their way from a place so deep inside him, so dark with fear and despair that he thought the vampire must have killed and turned him, and that this tarry pit he'd fallen into was the scooped-out hole where his soul belonged.
As he moved into the second set of movements, Riley let himself recall that fear. At first he'd been afraid to remember what it was like at the bottom; that time was so full of pain that, once he'd climbed slightly above the pit, he was sure the least look back would dislodge his uncertain grasp. But Katz had shown him that you couldn't move any higher without seeing where you'd been. He knew, he'd told Riley as he'd pulled him, just this side of dead, to his feet outside that cave, because he'd been there more than once himself.
The meditation was working; Riley's calm was back. Thinking of Katz always eased his mind, which eased his body in turn. His joints were fluid again, and the thick, tacky glue of tension that froze his muscles into knots was nearly dissolved. He closed up his final circle of the routine and concentrated on just his breathing, slowly bringing himself back to the clearing, feeling the chill of the December afternoon on the breeze that made the willow behind him whisper.
Riley opened his eyes and took in the beauty of Buffy's gravesite and felt a current of tenderness running through him. It was the essence of Buffy, that good/strong/smart/funny/good/hurting/healing/intense/strong/good energy that had first drawn him to her. This, he thought, this is what I want to tell you, Buffy. This feeling that I can't make fit into any words that make sense. It's like love, like respect, but there's...
Riley's battered heart contracted violently and he turned his startled jump into a spin, ears taking in the words that followed the high-pitched exclamation faster than his brain could process them.
"What're you doing to it?"
He had two strong heartbeats of adrenaline in his system, gearing him up to fend off the attacking demon before he realized that the demon was relatively small and, despite a strong opening kick to his shins, was doing next to no damage, slapping ineffectually at him in a decidedly girly human way. Riley took a quick leap out of range, releasing the thin arm he'd been ready to snap, and shared a long open-mouthed stare with his intruder.
The squeak over the first syllable clinched it for him, and he managed to keep his own voice low and manly despite his surprise.
"Dawn?" God, she'd grown up.
"What're you...?" They cracked sheepish grins at their simultaneous question, and then Riley found himself with a double armload of little sister. She was taller than Buffy now, he realized as he caught himself measuring where her chin poked awkwardly into his chest.
"Gosh, it's good to see you, kid," he said, and had to laugh at how much like a yokel he sounded around Dawn. "I'm so sorry I didn't say goodbye when I left. It just..."
"I know. Buffy told me." Dawn's voice warmed a patch of his shirt, and it made Riley hug her tighter. It was his first dose of forgiveness in a long time, and he drank it in. "Ooh, you're squishing me."
He let go abruptly and stepped back, but was happy to feel Dawn's hand pluck at his sleeve and then settle into his own. Her affection surprised him. He had a certain big-brother fondness for the girl--except when she was being really annoying--but he'd never been sure she gave him a second thought. Well, until her mom got sick, anyway. He'd secretly, guiltily enjoyed some of those long hours at the hospital, when Dawn would curl up against him, let him hold her and rock her as she slept. But it didn't occur to him that she might have felt the same way.
Dawn's face reddened suddenly, and Riley realized he'd been staring.
"Amazing what a year'll do to a person," he said with a purposely sheepish grin. "Who knew you'd turn out so pretty?"
The teenager ducked her head and rolled her eyes at him.
"But Riley," she started, her embarrassed smile uncurving and recurving into its opposite. "Why did you come here?"
Dawn's stress on the last word snapped Riley back to the reality of his whereabouts. He squeezed Dawn's hand before releasing it and turning toward the headstone. Beloved Sister. Devoted Friend.
"I came to see Buffy," he answered. "Then I'm headed back to Iowa--see my parents. Dawn... I'm so sorry about your mom. About Buffy."
She ducked her head again.
"Xander wrote me," Riley continued. "It must have been--"
"Terrible," she finished, nodding. "It was. But everyone helped. Willow and Tara moved in, and Xander and Anya practically did, too. And Giles was so great, before he went home the first time."
Riley squinted sideways in budding confusion, but didn't interrupt.
Dawn dropped gracefully to the ground, long legs folding neatly beneath her. "But now things seem almost normal." She paused and tipped her head in acknowledgment of the obvious. "Well, except for Buffy having, you know, died."
Riley's squint deepened into a baffled frown. Dawn seemed pretty nonplussed about her situation. He dropped to the grass beside her.
"You come here a lot?" he asked, then winced at his choice of words.
She blushed again, letting her hair curtain her face.
"I used to. This summer. Spike brought me some nights when he was over. And sometimes I'd come by myself."
Though he'd recently acknowledged that the vampire formerly known as Hostile 17 may have (very) inadvertently saved his skin, Riley wasn't nearly ready to be pleased that he was still in Sunnydale, and especially that he still had an all-access pass to the Summers homestead.
"Now, though... I dunno. It's so weird at home now, with Tara gone and Willow going all Twitchy Witch of the West. She hardly talks to anyone, and I'm still really, really mad at her, and Giles is gone again, and Buffy's just..."
He put a hand on Dawn's shoulder, smoothed her hair the way he'd seen Buffy do a thousand times.
"Buffy's the only one you can talk to, huh?"
Dawn wrinkled her nose at him. "Are you kidding? Buffy's, like, the last one I can talk to. She doesn't hardly talk to anyone anymore. She's all off in her own world..." She drifted to a stop, leaving Riley to puzzle over her words.
"Well, you know," he said, reaching for something comforting to say to the girl. "Just because Buffy doesn't talk back doesn't mean she doesn't hear you. I mean, I was just talking to her myself, before you snuck up on me, and I felt like she was listening."
Dawn flipped her hair back over her shoulder. "Buffy was here?"
Riley opened his mouth to answer, his hand rising to indicate the headstone when Dawn's eyebrows shot up and she clapped a hand over her open mouth.
"What, Dawn? What's going on?"
"But... but you said Xander wrote you and told you what happened!"
Jumpy points of panic pushed at the delicate bubble of the calm he'd only recently reestablished. Riley took Dawn gently by the shoulders.
"He did," he said firmly. "Xander told me Buffy died to save you, to save everyone."
Dawn's blue eyes got even brighter as they widened.
"What?" he pressed, jostling her narrow shoulders between his newly shaking hands. "What did he leave out, Dawn?"
She was dodging his glance. "So you didn't hear about... Xander didn't tell you what Willow and them did?"
Riley felt his fingers twitch and snatched his hands away from Dawn before he gave into his impulse to shake the information out of her.
Her eyes were glistening and huge. "Maybe... Maybe we should go find Xander."
"Dawn! Just tell me." There was fear in his voice, and he forced it out, hoping he wasn't scaring the girl as much as she was scaring him. It came out much saner the next time. "Just tell me, okay? Please."
Too late. He'd frightened her. Riley could read it in her face, her body.
The panic needles were poking harder now. His blood wanted out, pressed out, reaching for the puncture, rushing claustrophobically inside him.
"Please," he repeated.
He jumped when her hand caught his.
"She's alive, Riley. Buffy's alive."
The Magic Box's bell jangled much more loudly than Riley remembered. Then again, considering that he'd heard every one of his heartbeats between the grave and here--and most of Dawn's, too--it was possible that he might just be on edge.
Before the bell had quieted, a voice, equally as cheerfully jarring, picked up the clattering tune and ran with it.
"Welcome to the Magic Box! You break it, you buy it, so watch where you're going."
At least Anya hadn't changed. Her hair was a different color and style, but that in itself was ordinary, and she was right where he'd last seen her, tucked behind the register, looking at sales slips.
"It's just me, Anya," Dawn called.
"Oh," the ex-demon said with a tinge of what sounded like sadness. "You never have any money, Dawn. You should talk to Buffy about some sort of allowance. A girl your age really does need some basic accessories." She tilted her blonde head to the side. "You know, a few love charms--carefully mixed with a chastity spell, of course. You're much too young and immature to be having sexual intercourse, you know. And between you and me, those spells have come a long way since the belt days. I could set you up cheap."
Beside him, Dawn had turned an impossible shade of red, and Riley rolled his eyes for her sake.
"Um... Anya. Is Xander...? We need to talk to him."
Anya looked up and registered Riley's presence.
"Oh it's you," she announced not unkindly. "I'm glad you weren't killed in the jungle. Xander said you can handle yourself, but those ancient Mayan demons are no joke at all. Plus, you really weren't at your best when you left town."
Yep, Riley thought, same old Anya. "Hi, Anya. I'm glad you're doing well, too."
"The store's profits have risen by twenty percent since Giles left. Less overhead without him funding his condo out of the register. And without his advanced age and frequent concussions driving the rates up, the healthcare plan's dirt cheap."
Dawn nudged Riley down toward the register, repeating her question. "Is Xander off work yet?"
Anya checked her watch. "Assuming he hasn't chosen to consume alcohol with his coworkers rather than spend time with me, he should be here..." The bell jingled again, setting the hair on Riley's arms right back on end. "Now! You see, Xander does love me more than beer!"
Riley turned to see Xander stride through the door, carrying himself with a confidence that would have made Riley grin if his head wasn't hurting so much.
"Yes, Anya, it's true. Your company is far superior to--" Xander pulled up short, one foot hovering over the single step down to the shop's main floor. "Riley..."
Not sure how to respond to the obvious shock on his friend's face, Riley defaulted back to good old Midwestern manners and stuck his hand out for a shake.
"Xander." His hand hung empty in the air for long enough to make Riley wonder if Xander was trying to make some kind of point, but then, to his relief, Xander launched himself down the step, grabbing Riley's hand and pulling him into a back-slapping bear hug.
"Riley, man, it's so great to see you!" Xander took a step back, strong hands clasping Riley at the biceps to give his friend a once-over, then pulled him back in, thumping him soundly twice more before letting him go. "You look good, man. Bordering on scrawny, for you, but good."
Riley smiled ruefully. "In one piece, anyway. Army rations and some choice parasites did their best to turn me into a bean pole, but I persevered."
Xander's face, too open and honest to hide many of his thoughts, clouded. "You got my letter? I'm really sorry you had to hear that way, man."
Riley opened his mouth, but wasn't sure what to say. He nodded instead and tried to figure out the best phrasing.
Dawn saved him the trouble, in the end. She moved in on Xander and gave him what was to her a solid punch in the arm. She needed some fighting lessons, Riley thought. She wasn't weak, just unschooled. No focus for all that energy.
"Xander, you doof! You only sent him the one letter! I found him out at Buffy's grave. What were you thinking?"
"What do you mean, just the one? There was...." Realization painted a red streak across Xander's face, leaving thin white circles around his mouth and eyes. "Oh, crap. Oh, Riley. I'm so sorry. God, things have been so nuts since..."
His excuse trailed off, sounding empty to everyone in the room. Anya was the first to break the awkward silence.
"You didn't write him another letter? After all that stuff we talked about when Buffy died, about how he needed to know and you were the best one to write it to him, and then we bring her back to life and you didn't tell him?" She shook her head, tsking like a fishwife. "Wow, that was really thoughtless."
"Anya!" Xander's impatience cracked his voice. "Darling. I take this opportunity to point out that you didn't remember, either. And," he turned back to Riley, his voice losing its edge, sincerity ringing from every syllable, "it really has been crazy, man. I know it's not a good excuse, but, well, it's the reason."
Riley clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder. "It's okay, Xander. I mean, I'm floored. Obviously. But I can see how it'd slip your mind. But listen...." he stepped closer. "Can we... Can we talk? I just... I need to know what happened, and--and how--and I don't really want to do it like this. I need to sit somewhere and try to wrap my brain around it all, you know?"
"Do I ever," Xander affirmed. "I was there, and I'm still trying to wrap my brain around it. C'mon." He tossed his head toward the door. "How's about I buy you a beer?"
"Beer would be good."
" 'Kay." Xander stepped back and addressed the room at large. "Anya, Dawn. We're gonna go hit the Bronze for a beer. Ahn, can you take Dawn home? I told Buffy I'd drop her off, and I don't want her wigging out." He turned back to Riley. "Dawn just got her cast off last week," he said, as if that explained anything.
Riley's pulse raced at Buffy's name, as it used to, but this time his quickened blood carried dread and uncertainty and panic to his brain and other extremities. He stuffed his hands into his pockets to hide their shaking.
Xander, though, was perceptive and caught the move.
"Dawn," he said softly. "Don't tell Buffy Riley's here just yet. I don't think our friend Agent Finn needs any more surprises today, huh?"
Riley contemplated the last of his beer while Xander tipped his back to catch up. He'd been doing most of the talking, leaving Riley to pace his way through his pint, trying to absorb at least a little of the story he was being told with every carefully measured swallow.
The clack of Xander's glass on the tabletop pulled Riley's eyes away from the warming amber liquid in front of him. He tossed it back with a grimace. That last quarter-inch was always bad.
"So," Xander sighed.
"Yeah. So." Riley wasn't sure what to say.
The sardonic edge was back in Xander's voice, and it was a relief after the somber, middle-aged tone he'd used in his telling of Buffy's death, resurrection, and consequent stay in hell on earth. "Questions? Comments?" He caught the bartender's eye and flicked two fingers toward their empty glasses.
"So, Giles left? Even after you all found out that she'd been in... heaven?"
Xander nodded. "He said it was for her own good. I mean, he'd already left the once, you know? And we'd been preparing for it all summer. He set everything up with the store and Anya, made sure Dawn was okay with it, and that Sunnydale at large wasn't aware that Buffy was gone. And when he came back, after Buffy... I guess she'd been letting a lot of stuff slide onto him, and he figured the only way to make Buffy face up to it was to give her no choice about it."
The bartender replaced their empty glasses with full ones, and Xander took a shallow pull on his, discreetly sucking the foam from the top. "I mean, I see his point, you know? The guy's entitled to a life, and Buffy is going to have to deal, eventually. But it pretty much sucks all around. Because it's so obvious now that she resents the hell out of having to deal at all. Because of us. Of what we did."
Riley surprised himself by being able to momentarily put aside his own roiling emotions and focus on Xander's. He knocked his hand lightly into Xander's, getting his attention before lifting his fresh beer from the bar.
"You did what you thought was right," he said, knowing that even if it was true, it wasn't going to help much. But it needed to be said. "You can't know everything; you can only know what you know. You guys brought her back out of love, because you love her."
Xander snorted quietly in shamed disgust while Riley sipped. "We brought her back because we needed her. We were too scared to let her go. Too selfish."
"Yeah, well, Buffy's not an easy person to let go of."
"Guess you'd know as well as anyone."
Riley was entranced by his beer again: the dew forming on the sleek slight curve of the glass, the bubbles moving toward the surface in a calm and orderly manner, the deep amber liquid sparkling with a mysterious heat. He tried to focus on a single pin-point bubble, anticipate its path. It was too simple, though, and he was easily jarred out of his trance when Xander's voice, clearer and less full of self-recrimination than before, reached his brain.
"How's that going for you, then?"
"My beer? It's fine. Good."
Xander narrowed his eyes, aiming them pointedly at Riley's neck.
Right, he thought. You're thinking way too hard about those hops.
"Oh." Riley raised a hand to his throat, massaging lightly where the skin curved into rounded shoulders. "Letting go." He rolled his eyes heavenward, and was met by a tangle of cords and beams, lighting and sound equipment, the brief, startling flash of underage thighs in a too-short skirt as a girl rested her booted foot on the balcony railing. Eyes closed was better.
"Not so great at first. Actually, really, horrendously bad at first. That problem..." he let his eyes float open again and looked sideways at Xander, who was listening attentively. Riley tipped his head in acknowledgement. "The one Buffy told you about that last night. It got worse. A lot worse." He realized he was stroking the scars and quickly occupied his hands elsewhere. His friend the pint of beer came to the rescue again.
Riley took a long sip of the sweet, bitter coolness, swallowed firmly to make sure his voice was right.
"And now I'm clean." He made sure to look Xander in the eye when he said it. He was clean.
Xander held his gaze, testing it. It didn't waver. "Good to hear."
"I think so, too," Riley agreed.
"Wish you'd talked to me 'bout it," Xander said simply, no accusation or resentment coming through. Just regret, concern.
Riley's eyebrow lifted as he tilted his head in recognition of the sharp vision of hindsight. "Me, too. I was just too..." He closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. "I've never felt anything like what I feel--felt--for Buffy, and it was terrifying. She's so... sufficient. I wasn't brought up to deal with girls who didn't need rescuing, or at least the whole 'broad shoulder to cry on, strong arms to hold you safe' deal. And she didn't seem to need that from me, or to need anything, really. But I needed her to need it. And the vamps..."
He trailed off, not sure what to say, or if any of what he was saying was right. Xander waited patiently, sipped at his beer.
"The first time, I honestly thought it would just explain some things to me about her, because she'd been bitten, she'd let Angel, Mister Love of Her Life, feed off of her, and then Dracula, and I wanted to know why."
"Riley, man," Xander interrupted gently. "I can tell you, even though I have never claimed to be in the For Angel's a Jolly Good Fellow camp, it wasn't ... it was to save his life."
"Whatever. What I'm saying is that it wasn't like Buffy got all 'ooh, kinky bloodplay!' about it. Sorry," he apologized immediately, realizing his flub. "I'm sorry, but it's true."
Whatever. Riley waved a hand in apology acceptance. "I know that. But I didn't then. I didn't understand anything about it, and then when I found out what it's really like--what real need, real hunger, that feeling of trust and sharing meant--I couldn't stop. I..." He sighed in frustration. "I just don't know if you can understand it if you haven't been there. The pull..."
"Now wait just a minute," Xander cut in, "The vampire's thrall is not entirely unknown to me. I had a nasty bug habit for a couple of days there, remember?"
Riley dipped his head abruptly and laughed at the memory, and then he just laughed.
"What's so funny?" Xander asked, relief at seeing Riley crack a smile spreading across his wide mouth.
"You, Xander. You know you're the only non-freak of the bunch? Buffy's a twice-dead Slayer with communication issues, Willow's a magic addict, Dawn's a mystical Key thing, Anya spent a thousand years tormenting men for a living, I'm a vampire junkie--"
"Recovering vampire junkie, remember? You're an ex. And let me just say for the record that Anya's a one-man tormentor these days, and it's gonna stay that way."
"Okay, ex, but still. Giles is ... British, and you're... you're like Steady-Job, Gettin'-Married, Keeping-a-Level-Head Guy."
Xander's dark eyebrows perked up as he shrugged. "Dunno what to tell you, buddy. I'm not entirely alone, though. Tara's freak-free since she dumped Will. And Spike's as non-sideshow as it's possible for Spike to get."
"I dunno," Riley said, skepticism and bitterness ringing clearly in his voice. "I still can't believe you let him hang around. Guy's dangerous."
"Hey," Xander raised his hands in the universal sign for Don't Shoot, "I'm not exactly president of his fan club. But I gotta admit, he helped this summer. Taking care of Dawn, patrolling with us. Would've been tough without him on the team. Now he helps Buffy, and she needs it. Stays out of everyone's way for the most part. And--'nother plus--he cut out the creepy stalker thing, which, in my book, is really the key to him not being dust in the wind."
"That robot thing..." the very thought made Riley's skin crawl with disgust and indignation and rage and a shameful smidgen of comprehension.
"Yeah. Unnghhhhhuhuhuh..." Xander actually shook himself as he expressed the extent to which he was grossed out. "But, wrong as that was, she came in handy. And when Willow fixed it after the fight, Spike freaked. He hated that thing."
Riley just shook his head. No way could he be reasonable on that one. He'd heard the want shaking in Spike's voice when he finally 'fessed up to jonesing for Buffy, and the vamp had way too much insight into Riley's situation for the human to be comfortable. Worst of all, there was a part of him--and it wasn't nearly as small as Riley would have liked, or would ever admit to--that understood what drove Spike to create the BuffyBot. But the very thought of Spike with even a reasonable facsimile of Buffy made Riley's blood boil in a different way than it had since he'd gone cold turkey.
"Heck of a conversation stopper, huh?" Xander joked awkwardly, and Riley smiled wearily in agreement.
Xander watched him for a few long seconds, then nodded and cozied up to his beer, patient enough to wait it out.
Their glasses were nearly empty when Riley spoke again.
His friend tipped his head curiously, eyebrow stretching.
"For writing," Riley elaborated. "For being a friend. For telling me all this, tonight."
Xander's shoulders shifted in a predictably self-deprecating shrug. "Wish I coulda done more."
Riley smiled crookedly. "You did what you could, and I appreciate it. Just wanted you to know."
As if sensing Riley's sudden discomfort at the unmanly vulnerability he'd shown, Xander gave him a firm elbow to the arm.
"I missed you, too, you big lug," he exclaimed in his best aww-shucks voice, complete with batted eyes, and Riley laughed.
"You should get going, man," he said, elbowing Xander back. "Got your future little woman waiting dinner on you. I don't want to keep you from your scene of domestic bliss."
Xander grinned with just a tinge of remorse, mixed with a dash of embarrassment. "Hey, you should come over, have dinner with us."
"I dunno," Riley waved his empty glass in a lazy circle. "I was ... "
"Come on, it'll be good for you. What're you, gonna order room service from that crappy motel?"
Find Buffy, see if I can look her in the eye, see if she's really in there.
"Come on..." Xander pushed. "Anya makes a mean marinara sauce, and she's been looking for fresh blood for her Life game."
Go by the ball courts, shoot a few in Forrest's memory. Find Buffy, touch her, apologize to her.
"Okay, okay, I'll come."
"Yes!" Xander hissed, immediately sheepish. "Sorry. It's just... I really need guy friends, you know?"
Riley chuckled as he slid off his stool. "The Girl Power does run deep in Sunnydale. I hear you."
Riley felt good when he stepped out into the clean night air in front of Xander's building.
He was well fed for the first time in months, and he'd proved to himself that he could interact with relatively normal people in a relatively normal situation.
All in all, he felt, well, relatively normal.
He was pretty sure he'd had fun, too, assuming he was still able to accurately judge the phenomenon. Xander'd intuited the situation correctly and steered the conversation away from the obvious heavy topics and toward the lighthearted. Anya was quirky in her cute ex-demon way, and, it turned out, a really good cook and a surprisingly charming hostess. She was clearly practicing up for the wedding, but who was he to complain about a pretty girl with a seemingly endless desire to keep her men in eats and drinks and who appreciated the raw, uncomplicated violence of football?
No one, that's who.
He'd turned down Xander's offer of their couch as well as his back-up offer of a ride back to the motel, preferring instead to say his goodbyes there and leave the couple happily feathering their nest.
He paused on the sidewalk to look up at the stars. Belize had that going for it, anyway. When you got above the canopy, it seemed like you could see every star in the universe. Riley turned in a slow circle, looking for the North Star; halfway around, he saw Xander and Anya backlit in their window. He couldn't see Xander's face, but Anya was in his friend's arms, head thrown back and howling with laughter. She shoved her fiance away with a swat of her dishtowel, and Riley grinned. It was good to see them.
He stood watching for a few seconds and almost bolted when he heard the unmistakable sound of a glass door sliding open. Xander came out onto the deck and leaned on the railing, taking in the night. After a moment, he looked straight down at Riley and smiled, tossing off a jaunty salute and thumping his fist against his chest twice. Riley returned the salute and set off down the street.
When he hit the intersection, he thought about his choices. His time patrolling Sunnydale had given him an intimate knowledge of its map. He knew that if he stuck to the streets, he could take a nice, well-lighted route back to his motel. It would also take him directly past two of the three seedy bars he'd trolled before finding that vamp house. He wasn't feeling particularly tempted at the moment--being among friends had left him refreshed and grounded--but he knew better than to put himself in harm's way without acknowledging the potential.
If, on the other hand, he cut through the park, he'd be able to run the hypotenuse, cutting at least ten minutes off the trip as well as dodging his old haunts. Of course, there was no way to cut through any part of Sunnydale without setting foot in three or four cemeteries. Which was just another path past harm's way.
Sunnydale was just not Riley Finn's kind of town anymore.
With a half-hearted sigh, Riley opted for the shorter of the two routes. The odds were considerably better that the vamps he'd encounter in the graveyards would just be out to kill people, not looking to turn tricks.
Decision made, he set a brisk pace, slowing only slightly to smile sadly at the carousel where Dawn'd had her tenth birthday party. It was hard to believe she hadn't really had a tenth birthday, that she'd only been around for a year. Crazy.
Once he cleared the park, there were a couple of vacant lots with disintegrating buildings that Riley gave a wide berth, just in case. Past a burnt-out gas station, and then he was officially among the dead. He'd forgotten how creepy Sunnydale's cemeteries were. Despite the continuing influx of new clientele, all the graves looked centuries old. Even the round, new plots were headed by ancient-looking markers, angels with worn wings crying into the fresh sod.
Riley started violently at a noise nearby and had to chuckle to himself when he saw a squirrel hanging from an outer branch of a crooked pine tree, scrambling to swing its back feet onto the bobbing limb. Time to demystify the atmosphere a bit. Or at least quit getting all Edgar Allen about it. First thing he'd learned in Special Ops was not to let creepy things creep you out. Shoots the concentration all to hell.
Remembering the other things the Army'd taught him--simple things like having a weapon available in potentially dangerous situations--Riley fished into his jacket for the stake he'd stashed there that morning. He hefted it experimentally in his hand. It felt sturdy, strong. Satisfied that it would suit his purposes, and that his purposes were clearly defined--kill, kill, kill--he tucked the stake into the more accessible front pocket of his khakis. Like most of his old clothes, his pants hung slightly loose on his leaned-down frame, and, except for its blunt end pushing reassuringly against the top of his thigh when he walked, he could hardly tell the stake was there.
Eyes sharp, he headed across the cemetery's corner, fluidly hopped the fence at its south border, and jogged across Oak Street, letting his momentum carry him over the stony wall at Shepherd of the Valley. He'd been here a couple of Sundays when he'd first come to Sunnydale, trying it on for size, but the congregation hadn't been a good fit--too many students using church as a singles club. Riley'd missed the families, the picnics, the babies crying in the back pews, and had been pleased when he found those things a few weeks later, at St. Christopher's, up in the hills.
He tried to remember the last time he'd been to church, but drew a blank. Had he ventured back after the sinking, eye-opening morning when he'd woken up full of the confidence of love expressed and gone to sleep sick with having been used to hurt Buffy? Riley was sure he had--he must have been--but damned if he could remember when.
His parents would be disappointed if they found out he'd lapsed. They'd be disappointed about a lot of things if they knew about them, he thought, but reminded himself of the snug kitchen, steamy with late-winter cooking where he'd told them his life wasn't going to be what he'd thought when he'd gone ROTC.
At 18 Riley'd wanted to fly 'copters--just enough of a variation on the typical Tom Cruise-inspired "I'm gonna be a fighter pilot" dream to keep him from being a walking cliche. But by the time he'd graduated, he'd seen enough to know that there was more adventure to be had elsewhere, and that his talents lay elsewhere, too. He'd been pegged for Special Ops his senior year, and when they officially offered him the spot when he was commissioned, he'd jumped.
Mom and Dad had been concerned, of course. Worried like any set of loving parents would be about their boy going off into the really unknown, but they'd never been much for holding their children back. Riley had been blessed; he knew it when he saw the way other people's parents reacted to their kids.
They'd understood when he couldn't talk about his work, and instead of pressuring or guilting him, they'd focused their attention on the things Riley could talk about. Friends he'd made, places he'd visited, mentors he'd discovered. Girls. Sports. When he'd gone into grad school, his mother had about flipped over in pride. She was a psychologist herself, and his choice of fields pleased her no end. They'd debated Freud and Jung until his father and brothers had fled the kitchen in despair.
So he knew they'd understand that he wouldn't be able to explain about where he'd been, even though they hadn't heard from him in months. Even though the last they'd heard was a letter he'd sent from Mexico, saying he was back with the Army, that he'd be out of touch, but not to worry. The kind of letter that he knew would only make them worry more, but what was he supposed to do? Not write at all?
They might understand his duties, his obligations, Riley thought, but how could anyone as good as they were understand what he'd become?
He had to wait for a break in the traffic on Carlisle. The motel was just one graveyard away now. Riley winced and laughed inwardly at his Sunnydale system of measurements as he sprinted between patches of cars. This many cemeteries between locations x and y.
He turned off the broken sidewalk after half a block and pushed through the sparse, scrubby bushes that formed this end of Restfield Cemetery. They were some sort of flowering plant, he remembered from two springs of patrolling with Buffy. Pretty and cheerful and very out of place in the dingy, industrial neighborhood on the edge of town. Dead now, or in hibernation or whatever it was bushes did during the winter. Their branches scratched his hands as he pushed them aside.
What was with this place tonight? he wondered as he cased out his third peaceful graveyard in twenty minutes. He'd been edgy about running into vamps, it was true, but thinking of home had dispelled the feeling of normalcy he'd been basking in when he left Xander and Anya, and now he was noticeably twitchy. He'd almost welcome a good fight, despite the temptations it might offer, just to shake off some energy.
He regretted the thought as soon as he heard the pounding footsteps behind him. Riley's instincts took over, and he spun and dropped just as the whatever-it-was leapt at him. He flung his arms up, tight but slightly bent, and hit his attacker in what he hoped was its midsection, propelling it far enough away for him to gather himself and take the offensive.
"Nice moves, Tall-dark-and-flippy," the demon harped as Riley rose from his crouch to see it hopping to its feet, "but I think you'll--"
It's not her. It attacked you. She's gone, she's dead, and this is her haunting you because of what you did.
He couldn't speak, couldn't move. His joints were frozen, jaw locked. She was beautiful. God, she was so gorgeous and she was really alive, and she was staring back at him like she was the one looking a dead lover in the face.
He felt his sweaty hands trembling in the cold air and knew that he would move again.
"Dawn..." Buffy said, and Riley imagined that her voice was shaking. "Dawn told me. I knew something was up, and I made her tell..."
His voice wasn't quite back yet, so Riley forced a cough to move it along.
"You kinda..." he started, pleased that he wasn't stammering. "You got a way of sneaking up on a guy."
Her cheeks reddened in the moonlight.
"Sorry 'bout that. You know how patrol--"
She came toward him, closing the space with awkward movements that said nothing of the lithe, feline motion he'd seen just a minute before.
"Little bit weird, huh?" she said when she was within arm's grasp.
Riley smiled tightly and nodded. He lifted a shaking hand and bumped it clumsily against her arm.
"Little bit," he agreed hoarsely and stepped closer to her. He could feel the heat radiating from her--living, breathing heat that contradicted everything he'd been living with, agonizing over, for months.
"Geez," he croaked, and to prove her to himself, Riley slid his hand more gently over her upper arm, and then grabbed and clutched her abruptly, pressing her against his chest. She was stiff, arms held awkwardly at her sides as Riley dipped his face into the clean smell of her hair, grimacing to keep himself from crying.
After a few seconds he felt her relax slightly, and she slipped her arms around his waist. A hesitantly reassuring hand thumped at the small of his back.
Then Buffy pushed him gently away, and he had only a second to get his face back under control.
"So," she said, the awkwardness abruptly back.
Riley floundered for something to say.
"You cut your hair." The skin on his face and neck flamed with the ridiculousness that was him.
Not surprisingly, Buffy looked at him blankly. After an endless empty moment, her hand drifted up to the slight upturn of blonde hair above her shoulder.
"And that was really not what I was expecting you to say. But, uh huh."
He raised his hands in a gesture of futility.
"Sorry. I just... 'Glad you're not dead' seemed really obvious."
She smiled at him and smoothed her hair, which was more than a little mussed from her flight.
"Yeah, but, really, on the originality scale, 'you cut your hair' ranks only slightly higher."
"Well, you caught me off guard," he joked, wondering why he was joking. "It's cute."
"Thanks," she said automatically. "I just really needed a change, you know?"
"Yeah. Change is good." Riley waited through a long silence, heavy with expectation. "I'm glad you're not dead." It sounded just as stupid as he'd thought, so he plowed ahead. "I'm so sorry, Buffy. For leaving the way I did, for all the stuff before I left. For not being here when your mom... and when you... to help you..."
She tipped her head to the side in her dismissive way and shook her head with a hollow smile. "You couldn't have done anything."
He knew the statement to be true, and had heard exactly why from Xander, but hearing those same old words in Buffy's voice hurt. It hurt in the place where his malady had started--where that first, shallow stab of self-doubt had deepened and festered into the blazing infection that had taken over his blood. She didn't need him. And not just to fight Glory, either. She didn't need him to help with her mom--never had, so why would Joyce's death be any different? Didn't need his support or his love, or even just an extra set of arms to hurl axes or throw punches or stab, break, tear.
His voice was flat when he responded. "Yeah, 's what Xander said, too."
Buffy's face was blank--not blank like waiting-for-more-information blank--just empty.
"Xander said a lot, actually," Riley continued, making an effort to sound casual. "We caught up over a beer and then dinner. And he wrote to me this summer. You know... After. Told me some things that helped me straighten myself out. Or at least get on the road to getting straightened out."
Her eyebrows knit, and Riley sighed inwardly in relief at the expression.
"Mmm," she hummed as she nodded in acknowledgment. Her frown deepened and Buffy flicked her eyes to a point somewhere beyond his left arm.
"He wrote how you died, and why. And then tonight, he told me about how they brought you back. And where you'd been..."
Buffy nodded again, skittered her gaze over his, then away again. Riley pursed his lips but tried to keep his annoyance to himself; Xander said she'd been a bit disconnected since her resurrection.
"Yeah. It was nice there," she said absently, and then scowled fiercely over his shoulder.
"Is there--" Riley snapped around, scanning the graveyard behind him. "Is there something back there? Demon? Vamp?"
He saw nothing, just graves. When he turned back to her, she was waiting with a look of intent, but markedly false, interest on her face.
"What? No, sorry," she rushed. "I just thought I saw--you know--but it was nothing. Bird or something. What were you saying?"
Riley closed his eyes for the space of two long blinks and breathed deeply in through his nose, out his mouth. His hands itched from the inside out--sign one that he was hitting his limits. Too much happening in one day, too much world-altering information. It'd started out so simple. Visit a grave. Apologize. Forgive. Say goodbye. Move on.
"You know, maybe this isn't the best time," Riley said with something approaching resignation. "You weren't expecting me; I wasn't expecting you... I could just--I have a lot I want to say to you, Buffy, a lot I want to tell you, but I'm beat, and you seem..."
"Distracted," Buffy offered with an apologetic smile. "I know. I'm sorry. It's just, Dawn's at home alone, and I had to do a quick sweep and I thought I'd, you know, find you at the hotel after patrol, but maybe you're right."
He wasn't sure whether he was relieved or annoyed. Or both. And hurt. He still hurt.
"Maybe breakfast?" he suggested. "I could use a good night's sleep. To process."
"Breakfast, yeah. Most important meal of the day." She shook her head sharply and rolled her eyes. "I keep saying that. I don't know why. But yeah, sleep and processing and breakfast are all of the good." Buffy stepped toward him again and smiled awkwardly up at him. "You want I should invite the gang, or--"
"Can we just--"
"--Or we can just," she jumped back in. "Yeah, we just is good. Just us, eating the breakfast, makin' with the bacon, hashing it out over hash browns, talking complete nonsense all the time and I'm so sorry, Riley, I'm being a total spaz, aren't I?"
"Little bit," he agreed with a small laugh. "It's okay, though. It's a weird place we're in. Spazzyness happens."
Her next smile was a brief flash, but Riley saw light and sincerity behind it, and breathed a little easier.
"Espresso Pump, then?" she confirmed, and he nodded. "What time? I have to get Dawn off to school by eight, but after that, I'm set."
Breakfast in public, then, he thought, trying not to be disappointed. What'd he expect? She's alive and so now she's going to be making you naked omelets again?
Aloud, he sounded much more enthusiastic. "Eight-thirty?"
Buffy smiled again and settled her gaze on Riley's for several seconds. "I'm really glad you're okay, Riley. Really glad."
He felt his cheeks heat. "Me too," he agreed, and he wasn't sure whether he meant himself or Buffy.
Her smile lasted through a quick nod, and then she was looking at her watch.
"I gotta go..." she said in an apologetic tone. "Dawn's still--I mean, you know how she can get."
"Yeah," Riley said, though he didn't, really. "You go on home. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," Buffy agreed with her special, oddly cheerful the-battle-plans-are-all-set-so-let's-get-busy voice. "We'll talk."
Riley took a step backward as she turned to leave, but then stopped as Buffy whipped back around, hair bursting out around her like a solar flare. She closed the space between them quickly and put her hand on his shoulder. "I forgot how tall you were," she said, pulling him toward her. Riley was still moving when her smooth cheek bumped his and then scraped lightly as she turned to press her lips softly against his stubbling jaw.
"Sleep well, Mister Finn," she said in a nearly teasing voice, and then Buffy turned again and strode away.
He watched her for a few seconds before she disappeared behind a mausoleum, then turned himself and headed out of the cemetery. It wasn't until later that he realized she hadn't been headed toward home.
The Sunnydale Motor Inn was quiet, though it wasn't really that late--the inconstant thrum of traffic noise from the feeder highway was lulling, and Riley was glad for the calm. He was tired, deeply, soulfully tired, and he knew that, though sleep might not cure the non-muscular weariness, it would at least rest his body. And if he were lucky, he'd have one of his rare nights off from the nightmares. Not that his hopes were high on that front: the day's events had given his subconscious more than enough new fodder for their cannons. Still, he could hope.
Riley fished the key out of his pocket a few steps from the door, then inserted and turned it so efficiently that he hardly had to pause before pushing the door over the swollen shag carpet at the threshold.
He heard the flurry of the slide-and-crack and the roared curse, but it wasn't until he looked up from the confusing perspective that Riley felt the pain in his head and realized he'd been attacked. Cold cocked by a swift door to the face and knocked flat on his ass. He was on his feet and kicking through the door before more than three seconds had passed, stake in hand, crouched low.
"Don't bother with the sneak attack, Soldier Boy," came a gratingly familiar voice from the vicinity of the bed. "Much as it pains me to say, I still can't seem to kill you."
Perfect, Riley thought as he stretched out of his crouch and slammed his hand out for the light switch. Seated on the bed, the vamp squinted against the sudden light, shading his eyes with one pale hand and clutching his forehead with the other.
"Spike," Riley stated, angry but resigned. "I had to give up carrying plastic. This one here can kill you." He spun the stake carelessly in his hand. "And I'm suddenly in a really crappy mood--got this wicked headache from having a door bashed in my face."
Spike paused from massaging his temples to glare at Riley. "Yeah, me too, you know? Was worth it, though. You're gonna look even more Neanderthal than usual, come morning."
Riley resisted the urge to feel his brow for growing lumps. "Great. Job well done. Now get the hell out of my room before I have to call housekeeping to vacuum you out of the carpet."
Spike laughed sarcastically--the only way Riley'd ever heard him laugh. "Always threats with you. Whassa matter? No sweet hellos for your old mate Spike? Not gonna ask how I've been, what I've been up to?"
Spitting the words out between grinding teeth gave each one its own emphasis. "What do you want?"
The vampire's head seemed to feel better. He tossed his booted feet up onto the mattress and leaned back against the headboard, hands laced into a pillow behind his sticky-looking platinum hair.
"Me?" he asked with loosely feigned innocence. "I'm just checkin' up on you, mate. Make sure you're okay after all your adventures." Spike's voice sharpened noticeably, and his next words were pointed. "Make sure you didn't come back in an other-than-human way of being." He let the statement hang in the air while bringing one hand forward to make a show of casually inspecting his manicure. "Never can tell when one of you lot might lose control of your habit and get all vamped on us, or worse. Come round lookin' for some payback."
"Good to know that chip still works, Spike," Riley jeered. "I can't tell you how much it means to me that you're still running around like a neutered dog at the stud farm. Gosh, that must get kinda frustrating after a year or three."
Spike's lip turned up in a sneer he probably spent years copying Elvis to perfect. "Yeeaah," he drawled, "it's real frustrating. But a bloke learns how to bend the rules after a while. You'd be amazed the fun I been havin' these days, chip an' all."
"Is that right?" Riley asked and crossed the room to tower over the lounging vampire. "Well that's great--thanks for sharing." He leaned over and took firm but calm hold of the lapels of Spike's coat and gave them a shake. "I'm all warm and tingly inside. I feel like sharing all of a sudden, too. You know what I wanna share?"
Spike's pale face was glazed over with purposeful boredom. "Wha's'at, then?"
Riley pulled Spike toward him by his lapels to share his secret. "My headache!" he shouted, slamming the vamp's head back against the headboard hard enough to make it crash into the wall and rebound off Spike's skull with a second crack.
"See, I feel a lot better," Riley announced as he released his hold and backed up.
Though Spike raised his eyebrow at Riley as he righted himself and gingerly checked his head for damage, he didn't look surprised by Riley's outburst.
"Well, guess we got that out of our systems, eh Sport?"
Leaning on the ugly yellow chest of drawers across from the bed, Riley raised his own eyebrows. "It's a start," he acknowledged. "So, what, Spike? You come by for a thrashing for old time's sake? I don't buy it."
Spike tilted his head toward the closet. "You got any booze in there? This shithole's lacking in the minibar department."
"I don't drink with vampires," Riley snapped.
" 'S 'at so? I remember different. Seems I remember raising a glass to our fair Slayer not so very long ago. When was that?" Spike's voice flattened again. "Oh yeah. Right before you run off, leavin' your true love to die."
He hated that Spike could get to him so easily. The guy had a gift--a sixth sense that revealed people's buttons for his eager fingers to play.
Riley breathed as deeply as he could without making it show and retaliated. "You were right there, weren't you? I didn't hear anything about your pathetic stalker routine saving her," he snapped.
Spike's lips pursed in what Riley interpreted as anger. "Maybe not, Loverboy, but at least I was around. At least I put it on the line for her."
Riley pressed the heels of his hands into the corner of the dresser, keeping himself from pounding his frustration out on the cheap furniture. "Whatever," he bit. "Look, we can sit around here all night, talking about who could have saved her and how. And, not that it's your business, but I can guarantee you I feel shitty about how the whole thing turned out, and I'm willing to bet you do to. But you know what? It's over, Spike. It's over. Buffy's back, and I can deal with hating myself for what happened, and I can deal with Buffy not hating me, but I absolutely do not give a rat's mangy ass what you think. So why don't you just--"
"Oh!" Spike interrupted, face lighting up with a sinister smile "oh, so you've talked to our sweet, revitalized girl, have you? She absolve you, did she? Open her newly beating little heart to you? Tell you everything she's been up to since she's come back?"
Riley recognized the trap before he walked right into it. He wasn't as stupid as the vamp would like to believe. Clearly, Spike was had information he wanted to lord over Riley. Best to proceed with caution.
"I don't know why you came here, Spike," he said calmly, "or what kind of sick jollies you get from being a professional pain in the ass, but you're not going to win here. You've got nothing over me. I've made my peace with my past, and I'm making my peace with Buffy. I know where she's been, and I know how she got back. I know that her friends put up with you this summer because they needed some muscle--and a babysitter." Riley reveled in the flash of indignation that flew over Spike's features. "You've just shown me that you obviously haven't given up on your stalker act, though the rest of the gang doesn't seem to know it. But guess what? You can follow me around and get all puffed up and territorial like a scrawny-ass rooster, but the bottom line is that I'm not your problem. Your problem is you, Spike. You're still the same sick monster as always, and that's what's always going to keep you on the outside."
God, that felt good, he thought as he caught his breath. He watched Spike closely for a reaction, and was vaguely surprised to see acceptance settle over the vamp's sharp features.
"You got a point there," he said, nodding his admission. "I am a monster."
Something didn't feel right. Something about the way the word slid out of Spike's mouth like an endearment.
"More of a monster than you could ever be." It was Spike's idea of an insult, Riley recalled. "Even if you had gone and gotten yourself vamped. You don't have it in you."
The hairs on Riley's arms were pushing against the cotton of his shirt, and he had a visceral memory of the last time he'd seen Spike, the satisfaction of sinking the plastic stake into the unbeating heart, the rush from watching sheer panic turn the vamp's permanently sneering expression into one of pure, helpless fear, the frustration of being cackled wetly at, and the sting of cruel, true words... "The girl needs some monster in her man... "
"And, as it turns out," Spike said in a voice dripping with satisfaction, "being a monster isn't a problem at all, where Buffy's concerned." He stepped closer to the human, running his tongue over his white teeth. "In fact, it's the monster that keeps her coming back for more."
Riley's mouth went dry, and he realized he hadn't been nearly cautious enough. "What are you talking about?"
Leering gleefully, Spike let the punch line sparkle tantalizingly before he dropped it.
"Why, our sweet, sweet Slayer, of course... Likes it rough around the edges these days. Probably always has, just didn't have the heart to tell you how to get the job done. An' I've always been the roughest ride in town."
"Nuh-uh," Riley almost laughed. Almost. "No way." She would never. It wasn't even a question.
Spike's eyebrows shot up in malevolent merriment. "She's got the cutest little mole... D'jya ever notice it? Just on the inside of her left--"
His face burning, Riley blurted "Shut up! Shut your filthy mouth."
"Oh," Spike tsked, "don't tell me you never saw it... Such a shame, 'cause she just loves it when you--"
The solid crack of his knuckles against Spike's face sent spears of pain vibrating up Riley's arm, but it was worth it. So worth it to have the sick image slammed out of his head, replaced by the sight of Spike reeling backward, bleeding.
The vampire touched the split skin below his eye and languorously licked blood from his fingertips. "Feel better? I hope so. Then, if you're anything like Buffy--which I strongly doubt--a good ass kickin'll just get you all bothered, and, no offense, but I'm savin' it for my girl. Plus, I don't fancy you a bit. Wallpaper paste is more tempting than you are, mate."
"You must really like having the tar beat outta you, Spike," Riley growled. "Otherwise you'd be egging on someone you stood a chance against." Riley's hands were shaking, so he balled them into fists, which he raised in the vamp's direction.
"Me?" Spike said, as innocently as he could manage. "Oh, don't worry, friend. Buffy takes a lickin' as good as she gives one. Most amazing thing. Liberating, really. To be able to hurt her again. Really do some damage. And the most incredible thing? She loves it. Gets off on it. Begs me for it."
Riley knew Spike was taunting him again. As always. "You're delusional," he stated, confidence inching back. "Your chip is still active. You proved it with the door to my head, remember?"
"Oh, no question, decking you gave me a hell of a headache," Spike admitted cheerfully. "But, see, that's 'cause you're still human." Spike tipped his head conspiratorially. "There's the rub. Buffy's not. Not since that witch did her blackest mojo. Blighter Scoobies didn't even know what they were messing with. Brought our girl back, they did, but not the way she was. Dunno what the hell she is these days, other than hot for my little bod. But she's sure as hell not human."
Spike sauntered toward Riley, head cocked, waiting for a response. For the life of him, Riley couldn't think of one. It couldn't be true. Spike was jealous, territorial, trying to drive what he saw as competition out of town. Riley'd seen Buffy. She was normal. Sure, Xander'd said she'd been a little weird since she came back, and yeah, she'd seemed ... distracted? in the graveyard, but... Coming back to life was weird. He knew; he'd done it himself, in a way.
"You know it's funny," Spike said, pushing the advantage of Riley's silence. "See, I've been testing things out with this chip here, an' you know what I've found?" He waited politely for an answer, though the question was clearly rhetorical. "Well, I can hurt Buffy, but that's because she isn't altogether human anymore--we went over that. An' I know that I can put on a pretty good fight for demonstration purposes. 'S long as I pull my punches, I'm okay."
He was pacing in slow arcs around Riley, who leaned, flummoxed, against the dresser.
"But what I'm wanting to figure out is if... say I take a likin' to some new bird. I mean, that's not likely to happen--still got untold depths to plum with our Slayer, an' I can't imagine that game's gonna get tired anytime soon... But say, theoretically, this new bird liked it rough, too. If she wanted me to hurt her, do you think the chip would go off?"
Riley opened his mouth, but there was nothing in him that could push any words out. Instead, he concentrated on the scuffed tips of Spike's boots as they swung, pendulum-like, in front of him.
"Or what if..." The boots paused along with the chilled voice, then did a little hop-turn that snapped Riley out of his trance. He closed his eyes against the vampire's bemused speculation. "Oh, wait, here's an idea. What if there were some freaks out there who wanted to get bit--who would, you know, pay for it, for example? That'd be consensual, right?"
Eyes flying open, Riley felt the first flutterings of panic in his chest, followed immediately by the sickening, heady throbbing of blood in his joints and extremities.
Spike could sense it, he knew. His glacier stare warmed infinitesimally as a smile glimmered across his mouth.
"I don't think that'd hurt a bit," the vamp speculated, tone turning coy. "If I'm only givin' 'em what they want. What they crave, what keeps 'em up nights, drives 'em outta their beds, leaving their honeys all alone and none the wiser to what it really takes to satisfy their man."
He was closing in on Riley, head tilting this way and that, icy blue eyes boring into Riley's face, his neck.
"I don't want that anymore," Riley growled. "I'm done with it."
Spike's laugh was sinister but perversely sincere.
"You poor sot," he said with the tiniest hint of compassion. "You're never done with it."
"I am," Riley insisted, but his voice shook.
"Ah, come off it, you stupid git," Spike scoffed. "You can fool your friends, and you can fool yourself, but you can't fool me. You can't fool one of your own kind."
Riley's head snapped around and he caught Spike's malevolent stare squarely.
"You are not my kind. You don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't I? You think that just because I got turned, I don't understand? Oh, I get it, mate. We vamps, we live it. Every day, for eternity. The power, the control, the intimacy. The risk and the payoff... There's nothing like it. Sure, we tend to be the ones on the biting side of the equation, but we all play the game. My Drusilla taught me, and that bugger Angel taught her." He paused dramatically. "Angel taught our sweet Slayer, too, for that matter. Guess we can thank him for that, at least."
At Riley's sharp breath, Spike grinned and toyed with the hem of his t-shirt.
"Oh, yeah," he teased. "Buffy's getting' quite a taste for it. Been showin' an interest in takin' a nip or two herself..." He lifted his shirt to reveal an angry red bite mark--obviously human from the even, blunt gouges--just above his waistline. "Blood is life, friend. We all give, and we all take."
"So I've been told. Doesn't make her want me any less, though, does it?"
Riley seethed. "I oughtta stake you right now."
Spike chuffed a cruel laugh. "Yeah," he agreed, "you probably should." He stepped firmly into Riley's space, his swagger spreading over him as he vamped out. "Three guesses why you don't."
Riley's whole body flushed as his blood leapt toward Spike's gleaming fangs. He slammed his eyes shut, shook his head to try to quiet the sudden rush of noise.
"No," he said almost adamantly. "This is not what I am." He could feel the vampire circling him again, could feel the heat being pulled from his skin, reaching out to warm the cold body orbiting him.
The whisper near his ear startled him with its proximity and the cool air behind it.
Riley's teeth ground and caught against each other. It took more strength than he could spare to get out the word he needed to say.
The cold breath was on his neck now, and he could feel the vamp's chest pressing against his back. Spike's voice was mocking with flirtation. "Your words say no, but your body cries out yes, yes, yes..."
Concentrate! Concentrate! Riley screamed to himself. Mind controls body, mind over matter, you don't need this anymore, you don't you don't you don't...
But he wasn't fooling himself. His every corpuscle called out, stretching his veins. His skin was too tight, choking him. He needed to bleed. To be bled.
"Well, there's only one way to find out," Spike said, his matter-of-fact delivery slurred somewhat by his toothier mouth, "an' I for one am willing to risk one hell of a migraine to see how it turns out."
The first touch was just a scrape--a scratch that did little more than intensify the itch it sought to relieve. Riley squeezed his eyes more tightly closed and bit back a groan. The next swipe went deeper, and he felt the start of relief when the first drops were freed.
Then his senses went topsy turvy--the sweet sting of broken skin made revolting by the sweep of a loathsome, cold tongue lapping like a lover at his neck.
"Huh. No headache," the vampire murmured. Riley felt Spike tense against his back and braced himself for the bite.
Tears burned his cheeks as the vampire's teeth sank into his throat, pushing through resilient scar tissue to find the pulsing vein below. Through the rush of blood in his ears, Riley heard a voice--his own voice, though it sounded decades younger and impossibly innocent, sobbing: "I don't want it, I don't I don't..."
His body jerked and fought until his muscles had nothing to push them into motion. He opened his eyes just in time to see the room swing crazily, to feel the pressure in his neck lift. As he slumped bonelessly to the floor, the swirling blackness covered him.
An eternity later, Riley woke sitting bolt upright and clutching at his throat, gasping for air he wasn't sure he needed. He felt his lungs fill--felt the oxygen hit his system--and nearly sobbed his relief. In answer, his heart pounded loudly.
The familiar pain throbbed in his neck--torn muscles, ripped skin--and he explored the area with his fingertips, surprised to find something covering the bite.
Woozily, he rolled off the bed and stumbled across the grayly lit motel room into the bathroom, where he squinted at his blanched reflection with a mix of relief and defeated chagrin. A neatly applied bandage patched his wound, a few spots of scarlet showing through. Though he was grateful that it reflected in the mirror, Riley had to close his eyes against the pasty, bruised, and hollow face that peered brokenly back at him. He'd planned to never see that face again.
With a dry groan, Riley sank to his knees on the cold floor, desiccated, brittle skin denting painfully where the sharp edges of the poorly applied tiling pressed into his legs. Everything about him was parched, and when the hitching began, there was nothing to ease the sobs out. Riley slumped sideways and hacked his desolation in ragged moans that sounded like his old barn cat retching up feathers.
When his body seized up too much to even allow Riley the energy it took to cry, he slipped into a state of semi-consciousness, what heat was left in him leaking out into the icy ceramic octagons beneath him. The darkness behind his eyes brightened in degrees until he could see Katz looking down on him, haloed in yellow against the green background of the dense canopy.
"Get up, Finn," he ordered.
Riley tried to protest--he couldn't stand up, he wasn't strong enough.
"On your feet, damn it!"
Katz's command struck an elemental chord in Riley's brain, a chord that demanded action over weakness, and Riley struggled to his knees, grateful for the strong hand that locked at his elbow, offering support, lending power and vigor.
"Pete..." His voice scratched at his throat, adding an inner sting to the lingering pain in his neck.
Katz hauled him the rest of the way to his feet and leaned him against the trunk of the nearest tree.
"I didn't mean to, Pete," Riley quavered. "I didn't want to, I swear."
Pete's leathered face creased as he squinted. "Of course you did. It's a relapse, plain and simple. You never stop wanting it, you just stop giving in to it."
"How? How do you stop, Pete? I want to stop."
Katz wavered in front of Riley's straining eyes, the odd golden light fuzzing out his features.
"You're alive for a reason, Finn. Accept your life, and live it."
The glow around him was blinding now, but Riley felt the cool metal being pressed into his hand, heard Pete's voice clearly.
"Drink, Riley. You're thirsty. Let your body heal, and then work on clearing out your head. Cleanse your mind and your body will follow."
"Pete, don't go."
He could feel the canteen being pressed to his cracked lips, and Riley pried them open and let the cool water rush into his mouth, down his shredded throat, out over his chin, drinking and soaking every molecule into his pores.
He opened his eyes, hoping Katz had stopped shining so painfully, and was surprised at the cool wash of rain in his eyes. It wasn't the season anymore. As the water cleared his vision, Riley realized that the trees were gone, replaced by a moldy, cracked gray ceiling and a rusty showerhead. He opened his mouth nonetheless and continued to drink, letting the cool water sweep over him.
When the pounding in his head was bearable, Riley pulled himself carefully to his feet and shut off the shower. He hobbled out of the stall where he'd found himself hunched and crept unsteadily back to the bed. Through the thin curtains on the window, he could see that the sun was most of the way up, and he checked his watch, which still hung loosely around his wrist. Seven forty-five.
Not much time.
He stripped off his sodden clothes and tugged the comforter off the bed, rubbing away most of the water. Keeping his back to the mirror above the dresser, Riley sidled to the closet and rooted through his duffle for clean shorts and a pair of jeans. His fingers were stiff enough that it took several tries before he got the buttons at the fly closed, but he managed it. Bolstered by this small display of dexterity, Riley knelt and pulled out socks, his boots, and a t-shirt.
The boots were the toughest to get on--the laces took even more concentration than his jeans had. Once he was dressed, Riley gathered up his wet clothes--shoes and all--and stuffed them into the trash can in the bathroom, cracking the plastic in his effort to make the clumsy bundle fit. Then he tossed his shave kit and other stray belongings into the duffle and headed for the door.
The clack of the door shutting made him stop, and he dropped his bag and squatted, digging into it once again. His fingers closed around the cool metal, and Riley pulled Katz's canteen from a tangle of denim. He opened the door again and strode to the bathroom, where he filled the canteen he'd taken from Katz's body and looked his reflection square in the face.
The lump on his brow was bluish, heading toward brown. His left eye was more deeply shadowed than the right--Spike's door had caught him on that side, apparently. Riley's cheeks were sunken, his lips cracked and scaly. The bandage at his throat was wet and drooping, but still adhering. Choosing pragmatism over pride, Riley decided to disregard whatever message Spike had intended by patching him up.
He swallowed hard and looked down at the canteen in the sink, flipped on the water, and let the vessel fill. This and Pete's dog tags were all that were physically left of his mentor--they'd had to burn all the bodies to stop the threat of contamination--but he could feel Katz in the bathroom with him.
He intoned a quick prayer of thanks and shut off the water, capping the canteen as he headed back outside.
It hurt him to pull the sweater on, but Riley knew it was the best way to keep the questions away. The turtleneck--the only one he'd brought with him, and then only because it'd been a gift from his grandmother--scratched at the hyper sensitized skin at his throat, but Riley set his teeth to bear it. He jogged to the office, tossed the key and three twenties onto the front desk, and jogged back to the truck.
It coughed reluctantly to life when he turned the key and massaged the gas. Ignoring the painful stretch, he twisted his head so he could watch the parking lot behind him, and then swung out onto the road. Riley paused at the intersection, consulting his mental map.
A right turn would take him around town, which was his preferred route. He didn't want to risk anyone seeing him. It was going to look a lot like tucking tail and running to the gang, and especially to Spike--that thought needled him more than a little bit--but Riley wasn't willing to risk himself over pride. Pete had told him what to do. Find his life and live it. And of all the revelations the last 24 hours had shown him, the biggest one was that Sunnydale meant death to him.
Riley wanted his life. He wanted to live.
Without further hesitation, he made his right turn and coaxed the truck up to speed. Five minutes later he was on the frontage road, heading toward the freeway that would eventually lead him to I-15. From there, it was a straight shot--450 miles to I-70, and another 500 to Denver. He could do the last 650 to Des Moines in a day, easy. Three, four days tops, and he'd be home.
Heart beating (beating, despite it all) strongly and calmly for the first time since he'd parried Buffy's attack in the graveyard the night before, Riley took a deep breath and reached for Pete's canteen, pulling a long, sweet swallow and slaking his thirst by another degree.
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