Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doom belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and the people at Id Software/Universal Pictures, respectively.
“Buffy,” said John. His voice, low and strained, was completely out of place with the murderous anger filling his eyes.
Buffy racked her brain for something to say, some witty one-liner that explained away three years of not seeing and not thinking about him. This was made exponentially harder by the fact that his squad was standing around staring at them while she tried to think of it. (She so
did not miss them looking at each other and mouthing Buffy?
Problem was, Buffy had never become very proficient at coming up with probable causes. And this was John. She didn't know if she could lie to him, even after having all that time to prepare. She hadn't trusted herself to see it through the first time, and didn't know if anything had changed since then. Three years and she still hadn't come up with anything plausible that she could tell him.
The muscles in his jaw worked. His fingers tightened on his rifle and he looked as if he was about to shoot her. Buffy sort of wanted him to. She'd take a bullet over that look in his eyes any time.
She had to breathe. She had to breathe.
Buffy turned and walked over by Pinky. He was very obviously not paying attention, looking attentively down at his console. The Marines followed after a second.
“I set them up with their killcams,” said Pinky. “You got one?”
“Yes,” said Buffy. For all intents and purposes, she did. If a device had a signal, the Eye could use it.
“I'll get it.” He tapped a few keys and then made an expression of mild surprise. “There. Huh. Looks like it's already synced with the others.”
Buffy did not want to explain the technology that was the Eye. Co-developed by Dawn and Willow and only available for use by Operatives and sanctioned others associated with the Consortium, it was the sort of technology that the UAC would beg, borrow, steal, and murder to get their hands on. Also, she didn't really understand it.
No longer quite feeling as if she was going to throw up, she turned to face the Marines again. “Sarge,” said Buffy, and she was pleased to hear how normal her voice sounded, “I know they didn't tell you I was coming. I'm sort of a last-minute addition. Please go on as if I wasn't here and I'll just quietly tag along, OK?”
He looked disgruntled. Marines were notorious for hating Operatives. Operatives tended to break chains of command, give conflicting orders, and generally make a soldier's life completely miserable. They had to obey, since Operatives usually got their authority from a much higher power than some two-star general on a base somewhere, but that didn't mean the Marines' CO's wouldn't take it out on them.
It probably didn't help that she was blonde, tiny, and not a dog. Buffy knew she looked as if she should be hanging out on a beach somewhere, drinking something cute with an umbrella in it and having lotion rubbed into her shoulders, which was exactly what she would have been doing if she hadn't been stupid and taken Dawn's bet. The smallest Marine here—the one who'd been introduced as The Kid—was maybe twice her size and three times her weight. Destroyer could have picked her up and put her in his pack, and she was being careful not to stand directly in Sarge's shadow for fear of getting lost and never coming out again.
Their reactions were not unpredictable. Sarge looked pissed off and everyone else was surreptitiously checking her out behind John's back. It would have been more of a compliment if she hadn't known that these were testosterone-filled Marines who hadn't been on leave or even had a decent eyeful of cleavage in six months.
Buffy decided she would have to be careful. She had seen the transmissions sent from the high security labs, and Dawn had already briefed her as to what the Syndicate suspected the UAC was up to. If she wanted to get in, find what she needed, neutralize the threat, and get out, all without anyone being shot or otherwise killed and without giving the UAC time to figure out exactly who had walked into their research facility, she needed cooperation.
And now John was there. Things had become even more complicated. Not only did she have to get everything she had come for without alienating her back-up (front-up?) or letting anybody get hurt, she had to do all of that while not collapsing into tears.
Buffy couldn't understand why Dawn had done this. There were any number of other girls she could have sent, and there was no way she hadn't known John would be there. The call on the cell confirmed that. Dawn had known John would be there and she had sent Buffy to meet him. Why? If it had been for the purpose of brutally ripping open a wound that Buffy had only just begun to really get over, then Dawn had succeeded beyond all expectation.
Sarge looked at her, glanced at John, and then at her again. Obviously, he was trying to decide how to handle the unexpected turn of events.
He settled on military tradition: don’t ask, don’t tell. “People,” he said, “this room is a code red, which means no one gets in without our permission. It stays ours at all costs. Mac, stay here with our friend and secure the door. Men, on me. Let's move out.”
Buffy followed at the rear of the group while Lt. Huengs went up to walk with Sarge. John was right behind them. She had felt his eyes move from her like a physical thing, as if a pressure had been taken off, and she couldn't help watching him as they walked, the line of his back and the set of his shoulders, the shape of his neck and throat. The stiffness in his frame, the tension of his muscles, told her that he wasn’t having a much easier time of it than she was.
A strange, empty feeling had come into her stomach. Buffy tried to put a name to it, couldn’t, and then ignored it. I have to do this. I have to do this.
No one tried to talk to her as they went up to the hatch, where Sarge told them, “Open the doors.” The hatch came apart with a loud hiss, and then Mac stayed behind to close them again when they had passed through. Buffy noticed his look at her as she left.
The corridor of the main facility that led from the Ark to the atrium was bare and subdued, very corporate-looking. People stared as they went by, and whispers preceded them everywhere. Most of the attention was on the large, black-clad Marines, but when Buffy went by, there was only silence. Someone had definitely told.
The atrium was crowded and well-lit, as clean and as sterile as the rest of the facility. A huge UAC logo dominated the room. Buffy guessed that these were mostly the non-military personnel stationed at Olduvai and the lower level technicians. Walking casualties, she decided, and moved up to where Huengs was talking to Sarge.
“We're at a Level 5 quarantine,” Sarge was saying. “Nobody goes anywhere.”
“Lieutenant,” said Buffy, and they both turned to look at her. “I want all civilians and nonessential personnel brought to the Ark chamber. I also want the corridor from there to here blocked off and security stationed along it.”
Huengs frowned. “Operative, almost all personnel have a major function that can't just be—”
“I don't care,” said Buffy. “Unless there's a guy somewhere around here with his finger on the air button. He can stay. Someone with a gun gets to stay with him with the door locked. Everyone else—and I don't care what
they're doing—gets to go keep Mac company.”
He actually didn't look too upset about it but looked at Sarge anyway. Sarge took a long, deep breath and nodded.
Buffy had noticed the woman standing behind a pillar watching them as soon as they'd come into the atrium. Now she saw the woman finally come into sight, looking very carefully composed, and walk straight up at them, passing Portman trying to pick up what looked like college girls. His focus immediately changed and he altered his course to walk with her.
“We're under a Level 5 quarantine, so I'm just going to have to strip—”
Sarge's “Portman!” had Portman backing off and the woman's attention came back to the Marines. Buffy did not miss the way she looked at John, and her stomach clenched in a way that reminded her of what a glutton for punishment she was, as if she hadn't known that already.
“Sergeant, Operative,” said Huengs, “this is Dr. Samantha Grimm, the UAC science officer—”
Buffy closed her eyes, turned her back on the pretense that she was scanning the different exits. Bone-deep relief flooded her body. Neither of them had been much for talking about the past, but a few names had come up between them, and Samantha Grimm had been one.
“—assigned to retrieve data from the lab.”
Sarge and Dr. Grimm exchanged names, and then Dr. Grimm looked at John. “Hello, John.”
“Hello, Samantha,” said John.
, Samantha,” said Duke, stressing the hello part, and both Sarge and John gave him a look that had, in Buffy's experience, never been too far off from violence.
“Sarge, this operation's a code red,” said John. “We really don't have room for passengers.”
Buffy had forgotten how much a jerk he could be when he was worried about someone. She felt a surge of affection that she ruthlessly extinguished, and then wondered what it said about her that she missed him most when he was being a dick.
Dr. Grimm was having none of it. “Excuse me, but I have orders to retrieve data from three servers: Anthropology, Forensic Archeology, and Genetics.”
John had on the most condescending expression in his arsenal. “This is a military operation, Doctor. We're really not here to retrieve your science homework.”
Now Dr. Grimm looked impatient. “Look, I got an idea. Why don't you ask your CO what your orders are?”
John was having a bad day. First his ex, now his estranged sister? Nightmares were made of this kind of stuff. It said a lot that he was breaking his usually iron-clad professionalism. That'd didn't bode well for the mission at all. Buffy was fairly certain he wouldn't actually have the time or the opportunity to talk to her about anything, as she was the Operative and John's commanding officer was, like, standing right there. Then again...
John looked disbelievingly at Sarge, who was glaring at him. There was a pause while Sarge obviously tried to decide whose side he was on, as he probably didn't like the idea of civilians along for the ride any more than John did. Everyone else on the squad watched, transfixed, probably because they didn't get to see Sarge look uneasy very often.
He spoke carefully, but also by rote, like someone repeating what he had been told. “To contain and neutralize the threat, protect the civilians, and retrieve—” Here the look he gave John was almost—almost!—sympathetic. “—retrieve UAC property.”
Buffy turned away as John looked thwarted, Dr. Grimm looked satisfied, and Sarge looked uncomfortable, and that was when she saw the man in the lab coat.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about him except for the expression on his face when he saw her. When a man took one look at her, turned white, and took off down a corridor, it tended to mean something, and he didn't look like anyone she'd ever dated or gone to high school with. Sighing, Buffy went after him, her own walk a leisurely stroll. Where did he think he was going to go?
Nobody tried to stop her, except for a tentative “Operative?” from Huengs, and she was three corridors away from the atrium looking at numbered doors when she heard the gunshot. Zeroing in on the sound, she came to a door marked Lab 25. Pulling out the master key card Huengs had given her, Buffy swiped it and hit the floor inside Lab 25 before the door was even half-open.
The body lay sprawled against the wall beside an off computer. The gun in his hand and the hole in the top of his head seemed to explain the situation. The wall was splattered with brains and blood.
He was plain enough in appearance. Thinning brown hair, a slight paunch, and no wedding ring. His glasses lay cracked on the floor at his limp feet.
Buffy stood looking at him for maybe thirty seconds before Sarge came charging through the door, followed by Huengs, John, and the other Marines. They all came to an abrupt halt when they saw her. Sarge's eyes went from her to the body and back to her again, and John's expression was sheer disbelief.
Dr. Grimm came in behind them, saw the body, and gasped. “Dr. Brown,” she said faintly.
Buffy didn't know if the look of suspicion they were all aiming at her was an insult or not. Operatives had an ugly reputation. Still, it kind of hurt to see it on John's face.
Lab 25 was like all labs everywhere. Computers and graphs and charts covered the walls, and a table had been pushed up to the far wall. Buffy glanced at everything exactly once before she turned and started walking toward the door.
“Leave him,” she said to Huengs. “I want everyone else at the Ark chamber now
Everyone got out of her way as she left Lab 25. The Kid was staring at her with a particularly horrified expression, but she didn't have the time or the patience to reassure him. She had to get into the high security labs.
Buffy could tell they'd stopped to talk behind her back because she was already at the atrium when they caught up. Sarge's face told her clearly that he was liking her less and less, but, again, he didn't have to like her. John was looking at her as if he were beginning to figure something out, and she swallowed convulsively as she avoided his eyes. Whatever he was thinking, it was wrong.
She would never tell him so.