Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doom belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and the people at Id Software/Universal Pictures, respectively.
Sarge was looking at her.
Buffy was inspecting her sweater, trying to decide if it was salvageable and if she wanted to make the effort. The temperature in the Infirmary was normal, but in the tunnels it was hot, humid, and cramped. The black shirt she wore under the sweater was more comfortable but bared her neck and arms, heightening her visibility. It also left fewer places to hide things, like lip gloss or inexplicably nonfatal injuries.
Taking off her beanie, Buffy tossed it on top of the counter in front of her and removed a long, thin cylindrical object from the back of her head. Blonde hair piled down onto her shoulders, and she pulled her fingers through it to get out the hot, scratchy feeling. The cylinder she placed on the counter, beside everything else she'd been carrying in her duster.
Buffy could feel them looking at the ragged tear in her body. The Infirmary lights were hard and white, unforgiving, and she'd seen in the reflective glass of the small room she'd put Carmack in how raw and red the wound was, how black the stitches. She knew she looked as if she'd escaped from a lab where an experiment had gone horribly, sickeningly wrong. Dr. Willits had taken a look and actually gagged.
More than anything, Buffy wanted to go home. She wanted to crawl into bed, pull a blanket over herself, and hide for a few months. Of all the squads in all the units, why did she have to walk into John's?
“You're bleeding,” said Sarge.
Buffy looked up. Sarge was standing right next to her, his gun slung over his shoulder. He wasn't looking at her face.
Buffy looked down. She didn't see anything. Then she felt a light, soft touch on her back, below the right shoulder blade, and looked around to see Sarge holding out the blood-smeared fingers of his right hand.
“Oh,” said Buffy. The stitches had probably loosened again. She looked around for one of the doctors, but they were both just walking into one of the examination rooms. She sighed. “Doctors. Always too many until you need one.”
Pulling at her shirt, Buffy had just gotten to her feet to go get Dr. Grimm (she couldn't bear to look into Dr. Willits's eyes and see the evidence of her lies and deceit again) when Sarge told her, “Sit down.”
Buffy sat down. Sarge was obviously Sarge for a reason.
He didn't hesitate at all, just took the hem of her shirt and pulled it up to expose her lower back. Despite his very professional, impersonal touch, Buffy was somehow embarrassed. It could have been that John was standing right there, watching everything with abruptly narrowed eyes, or it could have been that all the other Marines were suddenly very interested in what was happening in that part of the room.
“What the hell, Operative?” said Portman, leering. “You like rank, that it? Stripes on the arm get you off?”
Buffy retaliated without thinking. “Maybe if you could get your arm as big as Sarge's, you wouldn't have to pay for all your dates.”
There was a lot of loud jeering. Buffy could feel
Sarge's eyebrow go up.
The jeering came to rather an unexpected stop when Sarge started working. He’d found a needle and some sutures from somewhere in the Infirmary, as well as a pair of surgical gloves, and washed his hands. The disinfectant strip came off with a cold, damp chill, peeled quickly away. Then, he proceeded to snap and remove the loose sutures before putting in new ones in the section that had started to come apart. The practiced manner in which he went about it suggested prior training in at least field first aid.
Buffy held as still as she could. The pain came nowhere near her threshold, barely noticeable for most older Slayers. In fact, it almost tickled, especially when Sarge’s fingertips brushed her skin.
The fact that it didn’t bother her seemed to be bothering everyone else. The Kid turned away almost immediately, followed soon after by Duke. Portman and Goat watched for a few minutes before getting bored, while Destroyer averted his eyes out of what Buffy suspected was sheer good manners.
John stood watching for several long minutes, until the silence could have been cut with a plastic butter knife. Finally, he turned his back and walked away, toward the room Carmack had been dumped in.
Buffy could almost feel the pressure building beneath John’s skin. She knew he’d been doing everything he could to ignore her, to pretend she wasn’t there and this was just any other mission, but it was pushing his limits. He both wanted to talk to her and to be anywhere but where she was—she could see it in every line, every muscle, hear it in everything he didn’t say. But she was the Operative and he was a Marine, and they were on the job. His professionalism was at war with his personal need.
He had always been like that. Always at work, always focused, never switching off. Until—and it had taken her so long
to understand this—until her. Until John had met her, and then work had just seemed less and less important, less and less like his life until the day he’d come to the end of his enlistment and told her he didn’t want to re-up. That he wasn’t going to sign again. That he would rather find work as a security consultant somewhere and get a house.
That he wanted her more than he wanted what had once been more important than anything else.
“They still talk about you down at HQ,” said Sarge.
Buffy came back with a mental twitch. How long had Sarge been talking to her? “Um…oh?”
“They used to give lectures on you,” he said. His eyes were fixed on the stitches he was putting in. “At the briefings on the Consortium. Operative 000, Triple Zero. My sergeant said he met you on ops in Hong Kong. He talked about you like you were God. Nothing you couldn’t do.”
Hong Kong had been three years earlier, when U.S. and Chinese covert ops had gotten together in an unprecedented joint operation to wipe out the Chen branch of the Triads, who had incidentally been using demons to do their dirty work, which was where she’d come in. The only thing about that particular mission that she remembered with any clarity was coming back from it to her apartment and putting all of John’s stuff in a box to mail to him.
Sarge seemed to take her silence to mean something else and changed the subject. “Is it true that you dated General Finn?”
Buffy couldn’t help laughing, a short, girlish burst of surprise. “Where did you hear that?”
“I heard his wife can’t stand you,” said Sarge. “I think they still talk about that Christmas party at the White House.”
That had been one unbelievably embarrassing incident that Buffy was never going to live down. The passage of time had not, it seemed, made Samantha Finn, Sam to her constituents, any less jealous than she’d been when she was younger. Standing next to a seventy-something-year-old four-star general while his wife yelled at him in front of nearly the entire Executive branch had been an experience Buffy had since considered having magically wiped from her memory.
“Just so you know, that is totally not true,” said Buffy. “Well, I mean, it was, but that was a long time ago, eons before…I mean, they weren’t together when…um…”
Buffy stammered to a stop. Sarge’s hands had gone still, and he seemed to be staring at the back of her head. Her cheeks felt hot.
“I mean, no,” said Buffy. “No. That is not true at all.”
Trying not to seem too awkward, Buffy glanced around the Infirmary, making sure no one had wandered off. Portman, Goat, and the Kid were talking by the surgical bed, voices lowered. Destroyer was inspecting his rifle in the seat behind the counter, and Duke was hanging over Dr. Grimm’s shoulder while she sat at the computer terminal in the attached office with Dr. Willits.
John stood at Carmack’s window, looking at Dr. Grimm and Duke with a faint frown on his face.
Sarge’s hand pressed into her waist.
He’d come to the lowest point of the wound, where the stitches had to be as small as possible. With the side of one hand, the one holding the needle, he had pushed her forward at the nape of her neck, while steadying her with his other hand on her waist.
Her breath caught.
For a moment, almost in between heartbeats, she felt him feel it too—a brief, tensing hesitation, his hand tightening over her hip—
—and then he pulled back, breaking contact.
“Got it,” he said, and his voice seemed to have become almost imperceptibly deeper.
She heard him unpackage another disenfectant strip, felt the first edge tamped to her skin where the wound was exposed. His hand pressed flat against it, the shape of each finger and his palm heavy on her flesh, and when he brushed his hand down the length of the newly-stitched section, she bit her lip to keep from gasping.
Abruptly he stood up, heading toward the counter to dispose of the gloves and wash his hands again, and Buffy was left sitting there with her brain screaming What was that? What was that?
Reflexively, she glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, and didn’t see anyone watching. What happened?
Buffy’s face felt hot. It was really very strange. She hadn’t reacted that way to anyone since…since…
Her stomach clenched.
The place where he had placed his hand on her flesh trembled with the memory of it.
Heart sinking, Buffy thought, I really am a moron.
At the counter, washing his hands, Sarge’s back seemed like a wall of muscle holding up his rifle.
The Christmas party had been nearly five years earlier. Not many people knew that she’d been there. The Hong Kong op had been very quiet, with downwards of ten people knowing about her involvement. There were maybe eight people in the world who knew that her numeric tag in the Consortium was 000. And only the heads of the CIA, the FBI, MI5, DIS, and maybe one other person in the Joint Chiefs knew that her internal classification was Triple Zero.
Only someone who had been paying attention, who had been watching closely and for a long while, would know those things about her.
She looked at Sarge, at his back turned to her.
From across the Infirmary, from the opposite side of the room, through the silence, the glass, and the dark waiting for her on the other side of the nanowall, she felt John turn his head, his eyes on her.