Chapter Thirty One
: So... I'm getting bored of posting this story... and I'd honestly rather just move on to Happy Endings. Particularly since I'm pretty sure I'm losing all my readers. So I think I'm going to start posting in way bigger chunks. The rest of the November section is about 6,000 words, so I'll post that all up as a unit, next time. As for December...
I dunno. I'm tempted to do all of December in maybe 2 or 3 chapters.
How long is too long for a chapter?
Dawn was typing at her laptop, in the main library of the Institute, surrounded by the others, all doing research. Trying to come up with something they could use to their advantage.
Dawn sent off her email, and checked her inbox. New message — about Audrey's transfer. Typed transcripts of some… recordings that had been given to the police.
Dawn clicked the attachment.
Then froze, as her eyes read the words on the page.
"Oh, God," she breathed. She stumbled backwards, her chair tumbling against the floor as she stood up, her eyes still on the screen. "Oh, God."
Everyone else in the library was staring at her, now.
"I think," Dawn said, turning and darting off to the bathroom, "I'm going to be sick."
The others looked at one another. Then ventured over to the computer screen. And read, for themselves, exactly what Dawn had seen.
They sat around a large conference table in the library, no one saying anything for a long moment, no one even managing to look at one another. Eyes all fixed on the dark wood grain of the table.
"I'm going to kill them," Jack said.
"Get in line," Dawn muttered.
"And then," Jack continued, "I'm going to gather up their bones and have Willow resurrect them, just so I can kill them all over again!"
Sam slammed her hands down on the table, glaring at Jack and Dawn. "I want him out of there!" she insisted. "Now! And if this Audrey person isn't willing to tell us where he is, I'm sure as hell going to make her!"
"Good luck," said Dawn. "You read the transcript. She's seriously disturbed."
"Oh, yeah," said Sam. "Because the only person to ever escape the vampires' lair 'just happens' to be too insane to tell us where he is. And that's just a coincidence!"
Xander frowned. "This is all… wrong."
"Like with the Initiative," Willow agreed. "The Doctor should have escaped by now."
"Shouting at Audrey isn't going to get her to remember any faster," Jack told Sam. "I say we catch one of the TBVs, and force it to tell us."
"Torture," Dawn muttered.
"They deserve it!" Jack snapped.
"We can barely even kill the TBVs!" Sam insisted. "What do you mean, catch them?"
"Sam's right," Willow put in. "Even if we find out where the Doctor is, he's going to be protected by the most invulnerable, super-powered TBVs of them all. We've got no plan."
"I don't need a plan," Jack gritted through his teeth. "I just need a very big gun."
"Yeah, gun," said Xander. "Because if I'm caught in a cave with unbeatable bloodsucking monsters from the worst depths of my imagination, the one weapon I'd ask for is the one we know — for sure — doesn't work." He gave a little shrug. "Might as well go in there armed with a feather duster."
The others ignored Xander, though. They were too busy shouting at each other. Their angry voices filling the hall, their worry and fear flooding through their every gesture, their words lost in the chaos of un-listening anger.
The thwack of a weapon slicing through the table, splintering the wood on impact, silenced them all. No, not just a weapon.
Buffy stood, at the head of the table, her arms crossed, her demeanor calm and controlled, but with a frazzled, hard anger underneath it that seemed to course through every cell of her body.
"There are vampires out there," she reminded them, "that aren't being slain."
"Buffy," started Dawn, "we—"
"I know," said Buffy. "And we're getting him out." She looked out at all of them, in turn. "But we've got a war to fight, too. A human race to save. I'm not going to let that stop."
"It's the Doctor's blood that's making them able to fight against us," said Sam. "If we get him out…"
"Then they don't get any less invulnerable," Buffy cut in. "They still have an army capable of taking a pretty big chunk out of the human population. And I'm guessing they've stockpiled some extra blood, just in case."
"She's right," said Jack. "We save the Doctor the way he'd want to be saved. By saving the world, him, everyone here, reviving Joanna back in LA, fixing all problems and doing everything at once — no matter how impossible it seems."
"We can't do all that," Sam said.
Willow gave a little shrug. "Actually… this kind of thing is sort of Buffy's… specialty. You know. Winning impossible fights."
Buffy pointed at Jack. "You. Grab a gun and a Slayer, and go out on TBV patrol." She turned to Willow and Xander. "Research and magic stuff." She turned to Sam. "And you. Riley knows something he's not telling us. I want you to get it out of him."
Buffy turned to Dawn. "And you…"
"I'm going monster-fighting with Jack," said Dawn, giving her sister a challenging look.
"No," said Buffy, throwing Dawn a gun. "You're going monster-fighting with me."
Dawn caught the gun, a little surprised.
"One question," Sam put in. "If we're saving the Doctor his way, does that mean we're going to keep all the TBVs holding him alive?"
Buffy looked over at Sam, her face momentarily flashing with the anger she felt, deep inside.
"No," she said. "That part we're doing my way."
"Don't!" the Doctor warned.
But Jeanette, the latest human hostage, had had enough. She'd had enough of the terror, the pain, the degradation and humiliation. She'd had enough of watching them do — everything that they did — to this guy who very obviously didn't deserve it. She'd had enough of these sick, twisted vampires harming people, and harming her, and never giving her a chance to fight back.
But this little game of theirs — they'd given her a pure iron sword, and a one-on-one match against a vampire of their own choosing. The vampire that Jeanette was about to decapitate.
She ignored the Doctor, and with one stroke, sliced the head off the vampire's shoulders.
But… he didn't turn to dust.
The head rolled down by her feet, the blood pouring out from his neck. Human blood. Pumping blood. Jeanette dropped the sword, and stumbled back.
Nearby, the other vampires were laughing at her.
"That… that was…" Jeanette whispered.
"A human being," Razor confirmed. "One of the pillars of his community. Charitable, kind, compassionate — or so I've been told. When we invaded, he gave himself up to save a group of strangers."
"But… but he…" Jeanette shook her head. The man had been trying to kill her. He'd been crazed, grabby, filled with anger and animosity and hatred. He'd practically groped her, earlier. "He was a monster."
"It's our new little game," Leandra said. She shifted her eyes over to the Doctor. "Don't you like it?" She leaned into Razor, her head against his chest. "Razor thought it up. We call it 'playing Doctor'."
"'The Doctor'," Razor said. "He goes around the universe. Making people better. Making people like him." His grin widened, pride shining through his face. "But because you're busy destroying the human race, I decided to take over. Remake humanity in your image — as my Bringers of Death."
Jeanette had had enough. She swiped up the sword from the ground, her eyes fixed on Razor. And charged at him.
Faster than she could register, she found herself disarmed and restrained by Razor, his greedy yellow eyes boring into her own, as she struggled to break free.
"Look at you," he snarled. "Young, pretty, spirited, and brave. Tender-hearted. Compassionate." His eyes gleamed. "You'll never forget your first kill."
"That's enough, Razor," the Doctor demanded. "You've had your fun. Now let her go."
"Let her go?" Leandra asked. She gave a fake pout. "But we want to kill her. We so love what comes next."
"I said," the Doctor warned them, his voice stone cold, "let her go."
Razor glanced over at Leandra, a smile on his face. "I think we've made him angry."
"I like them angry," said Leandra. "I like them angry and desperate and struggling. They're more delicious that way." She fixed her eyes on Jeanette. "So
much more delicious."
Jeanette fought harder to free herself from Razor's grip.
The Doctor struggled to pull himself free, but the restraints held fast. "Leandra!"
"Impatient?" asked Leandra. "Don't worry. You'll get your turn, soon enough."
"Oh, but Leandra!" Razor insisted. "Don't say that! He's been sending messages to all his Slayer friends. They're coming to rescue him."
"Too bad they're only rescuing him," Leandra agreed. "And not the rest of the human race. After all, who cares if humanity is wiped out? So long as they get the Doctor back, they've achieved their goals."
"The Slayer and her Scythe," Razor agreed. His eyes flicking back over to the Doctor, amusement spreading through him, as he noticed the Doctor's instinctive reaction to the weapon's name. "And I never thought I'd find any weapon you despised more than guns."
The Doctor said nothing. But he seemed to calm, a little, at Razor's words, and regain some of his former composure.
"You're going to keep Jeanette alive," he told the vampires, "because you want me to remember that I couldn't stop her. You want me to see her mourn. You want me to see how helpless I really am." He set his jaw. "Now let her go."
Razor's good humor dropped a hair. He threw Jeanette into her cage, clicking the padlock shut as she thudded against the steel bars at the other end.
"I'll keep her," he said. He turned, his eyes locked on the Doctor. "But only because I'm not done with you, yet. And I'll need her around to make sure you cooperate."
Then he spun around, and left, Leandra by his side.
The Doctor looked over at Jeanette. "Got it?"
Jeanette held up her hand, the key to her cell tightly clenched inside her fist.
"Right! Well, then. Time to get out," the Doctor urged her. "Go on!"
Jeanette put the key into the padlock, then hesitated. Her eyes fixed on the Doctor. "I… don't have the key for your… you know."
Layers upon layers of restraints and safeguards and psychic bubbles.
"Everyone who's ever gone back for me is dead," the Doctor told her. "Get out of here. Do what you do best. Be brave, be brilliant. Bring the fight to the vampires, and take back the Earth."
"But if I don't get you out of here, Razor said he'd…" Jeanette shivered. "To you. Again."
"Less chance of it actually happening, if you escape," the Doctor told her. "Now go."
Jeanette twisted the key in the lock, and snuck out of the cage. She gave one last look at the Doctor, then ran to the exit.
"I'll be back," she promised. "I'm just going to get help!"
The Doctor stared after her, waiting for the moment the failsafe mechanisms would kick in, alerting the vampires that the Doctor had messed with the alarm systems, and sending them all running after Jeanette.
"Help," he repeated. Thinking about the Slayer. The Oblivion Scythe. And the fate of the human race.
So many lies. From so many sources. Too many to sort through, not enough data — stuck in here — to figure out which one was correct. Lies upon lies upon lies, and no one he knew he could trust.
But the Slayer had the Scythe. He knew that for a fact.
"No one left," the Doctor muttered, "who can help me, now."
Just like every time she fell asleep. Always the same nightmare, ever since Sunnydale had collapsed. Ever since Spike had… (Your nightmares will come true.)
"You're better than this," the Doctor pleaded with her, once again, as she wrapped him up in chains. "You don't have to do this. You know that this is wrong."
Buffy paused. A handcuff clutched tightly in her fist.
Then she threw it onto the ground.
"You're right," she said, meeting his eyes. "This is wrong. I can't do this."
He smiled at her — that trusting, perky grin.
"Because this isn't enough," Buffy said.
The grin faltered. "Elizabeth—"
"You'll never be mine," Buffy told him. "Not really. Not even when I lock you up and make sure you never leave me."
"Exactly!" the Doctor said.
"Because you don't know," Buffy continued, "what it's like." She leaned forwards, and whispered into his ear, "To be dead."
He jerked away from her, his eyes wide. He tried to struggle, tried to break free, but couldn't. "I know what it's like," he insisted, when he realized that he couldn't run. "I've died before. Just like you! Died and then come back."
"That's not what I meant!" Buffy said. "You know what it's like to die. You don't know what it's like to be
dead. To feel dead and alone and removed from everyone and everything, hoping and praying that you'll find the one man in the universe who can make you feel alive again."
The Doctor said nothing, but there was a hint of real fear in his eyes. Your nightmares will come true.
"But you're here now," said Buffy, leaning into him. Feeling the warmth of his body, heating her own. "Here to save me. Because that's what you do."
"Then let me save you," the Doctor said. "Let me help you. Please."
"I don't want you to save me!" Buffy insisted. "I don't want you to do anything. I just want you. Always. Always
." She stepped in closer. Stroked his cheek. Looked deep into his eyes. "I love you," she whispered. "So much. I've felt so dead, inside, without you."
She leaned in, and kissed him. On the lips. Along his jaw. Down his neck.
"Stay with me," she whispered, as she felt her face morph, almost instinctively. "Die with me."
And bit down. Your nightmares will come true.
His blood running through her. Warming her. His very soul like sunlight, gliding across her fingers, burning yet so beautiful, and she loved him, loved him, because he thought he could save her, even now, letting himself die beneath her. Your nightmares will come true!
Buffy woke up screaming.
Spike hesitated, his hands hovering over the Amulet that Angel had just left… lying around. Joanna was out for the count. Angel was out of leads. And, as far as he could tell, back in Cleveland, the Slayers were fighting a losing battle.
It was only a matter of time before Buffy died.
Spike reached forwards, once more, then pulled his hand back. He could still remember the last time he'd done this, during the Final Battle of the Hellmouth. How he'd stepped into that ray of sunlight, felt its warmth upon his face, as the Amulet buzzed with power upon his chest. And then… the bursts of light streaming from the Amulet, destroying all the Turok-Han vampires nearby, draining the last of the energy from the Hellmouth, as it consumed him, and then…
Spike remembered dying.
(Just as Buffy might be dying, somewhere, because he was too much of a coward to be her Champion, again.)
"To hell with it!" Spike muttered, grabbing the Amulet. He shoved it around his neck, then strode outside, into the newly breaking dawn. "You only die three times."
He walked out, his hands open, staring up at the brightening sky. "All right, sunlight!" he shouted. "Give me your best shot!"
And just like before, he felt the power running through the Amulet. Felt it buzzing with life. He looked down, and watched it glow.
Then it gave a small whine, and conked out. Like a car that had just run out of petrol.
"Oh, bloody hell!" Spike shouted, as he felt his skin catch fire. He jerked out of the sunlight, rolling across the ground, trying to stop the flames.
The cool foam of the fire extinguisher put them out.
Spike looked up, and found Angel standing nearby, holding the fire extinguisher. "Let me guess," said Angel. "It didn't work."
Spike snatched the Amulet, and threw it at Angel. "For the last time," he said, "no more bloody amulets!"
Joanna lay, comatose, in the hospital, machines monitoring her every life-sign. It was nighttime — there were no visitors allowed — but one ghostly figure stood by the sidelines, watching. A figure with big ears, a leather jacket, and close-cropped hair.
The air folded, beside him, and another figure emerged. A girl, blond, determined, with fierce blue eyes and an athletic build.
"We have to talk," she said.
The man sighed, and put his hands into his jacket pockets. "So it's you. Fantastic." He looked her up and down. "Chose the desktop theme for me, then?"
The image of Buffy gave a cruel smile. "Don't you like it? I thought you'd do anything she asked you to." She paused, and reflected. "Or… is that just because you feel guilty over what you
did to her
"Believe it or not," said the man who wasn't the Doctor, "I've got better things to do with my time than exchange third-rate quips with the universe's most obnoxious schoolyard bully. So if you don't mind—"
"I know your secret," the image of Buffy cut in.
The man paused, a moment. "Don't know what you mean."
"The Scythe was a good distraction," the image of Buffy continued. "With something as powerful as the Scythe around, I almost didn't notice what you did at all."
The man knocked his hand against his own head. "Nope," he said. "Still got no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, don't play games with me!" snapped the image of Buffy. "The Doctor's being tortured, you've promised Buffy to stop it. But… nope! Not one word of protest. Not one plea. Not one round of begging."
"Got my dignity, me," said the man. "Don't need to beg. Can stop this myself."
"Come on," groaned the image of Buffy. "You know you can't
The man said nothing.
"I can guess what's really going on," said the image of Buffy. "What you did. What it means. I can even guess why." She raised her voice, so that it sounded sweet and innocent. "Because Buffy Summers asked you to."
"She makes lots of wishes. Past, present, and future. Not sure which you mean."
"And you did it, even though it could mean the complete destruction of everything," the First snapped. "The end of the universe. The end of all universes! The end of you, of me, of everything and everyone in existence. You irresponsible idiot!"
The man grinned. "Look at you," he said. "Playing the hero, for once. Wanting to save the universe. Like the change."
The image of Buffy advanced on him, eyes blazing. "I'm sick and tired of doing 'good' things," she snapped. "I very nearly saved the Doctor's life, just now. And the Earth! All because of what you did!"
"Offered to save his life?" asked the man, amused. "What? Afraid he'd trick you, if you tried to force him?"
"I'm not the only one who wants to see the Doctor suffer," said the image of Buffy. "As it turns out. And I'm not about to risk helping anyone else with their plans."
The man froze. His face grave, pale. But said nothing.
"You know that already," said the image of Buffy. "You probably know more about it than I do. At first, I thought this was all just some ploy to kill the Doctor. But now that I've learned your little secret," the First gave a smile, "I think this whole thing is actually about you
"Do me a favor and shove off, would you?" the man snapped.
"Oh, is the Doctor's torture pulling at your poor human conscience?" the image of Buffy asked, with a theatrical pout. "Is your weak little human heart crumbling at the thought that your friends are suffering, and it's all your fault?"
The man said nothing.
"At least the Doctor begs, when others suffer and he's helpless to stop it," said the image of Buffy. "What do you do? Nothing. Nothing at all. You claim compassion, goodness, virtue — but inside, all you are is greed. Ambition. Revenge."
The man shot the First a pitying look. "Oh, Mr. The First," he sighed. "I wish that you knew — even just for a few minutes — what it's like to have a human soul. So you can understand what it means to love."
The First choked on a laugh. "Love? Seriously? People are being tortured and dying all around you, and that's the best you can come up with?"
"To love someone so strongly," the man continued, "that you'd do anything — give up anything, make any sacrifice — to keep them alive and safe." He turned to the First, his eyes piercing, his anger radiating through him. "Lay one finger on her," he warned, his voice low and biting, "and I swear. I'll destroy you."
He strode past the image of Buffy, and faded into the air.
The First just laughed, staring at where he'd been. "Like you could even touch me!" it said, popping out of reality.
"Oh, God," said Riley, his face growing a little paler. "He said… but I never thought…" He sat down on a nearby chair, his head in his hands, staring at the ground.
Sam reached out a reassuring hand, then stopped. Hesitated.
"What did he say?" Sam asked, instead.
"I didn't… I thought…" Riley faltered. "I knew him. In… his future. And he mentioned — he said he knew what it was like, to be needed and desired by vampires. But I swear, I just thought… he was talking about… prostitution! I had no idea… I couldn't even have imagined…"
Sam sat down beside her husband, tucking her hands between her knees. Trying to reconcile Riley's garbled speech with the Doctor she, herself, knew. And failing. (Prostitution? Vampires? Honestly?)
"There's something you're not telling me," Sam said. "About you and the Doctor."
Riley didn't answer.
"I know you two weren't friends," Sam continued. "That's been obvious from the start."
"How do you—?"
"The way you jump at any chance to take down miscreants calling themselves 'the Doctor'," Sam said. "The way you reacted, when I told you I knew him." She looked away. "The way you tried to convince me not to come here, when we found out he was in trouble."
Riley took a deep breath. "Sam…"
"But I just can't understand it!" Sam insisted, turning back to him. "You two should have been friends — allies! You're both noble, heroic, wonderful people, who are always compelled to take action and save others. You both fight to defend the Earth and humanity. You're the two bravest men I've ever met. But whenever I mention him…" Sam stared at Riley. "…I almost get the feeling you… hate
"I don't…" Riley shook his head, still unable to meet her eyes. "I don't hate him. Anymore." He hesitated. "I don't think."
Sam took Riley's hands in her own, trying to get him to look at her. "Riley," she pleaded. "Tell me. What's going on? What happened at the Initiative? What did the Doctor tell you about the events happening right now?"
Riley took a deep breath.
And told her everything.
Joanna lay on the hospital bed, unconscious. The blinds pulled closed across the windows around her, the usually sunlit little room now draped in shadow.
"Nothing?" asked Spike.
"Nothing," Angel replied. "The doctors say there's nothing wrong with her. No symptoms. No causes. Just… nothing."
"That's doctors for you," muttered Spike. He paced the room, his eyes fixed on Joanna. Then he flicked them over to Angel. "Bloodfasting?"
"It has to be," Angel agreed. He took the small stone he'd discovered, earlier, out of his pocket. The stone that Joanna had had on her, when she'd collapsed. "Now that we know this had nothing to do with it."
"No use arguing with the truth," Spike said. "It wasn't the rats. Wasn't the stone. Wasn't magic. Wasn't physical. She's got a psychic link to the Doctor. Only one reason this could happen."
Angel said nothing.
"The Doctor is dead," Spike said. "She's reacting to that. Better face it, sometime." He crossed his arms, and muttered, "Buffy's going to be in a right state when she finds out."
"He could have regenerated," Angel proposed. "You never know."
"If he'd regenerated, he'd have taken out Razor and the other leaders of this vampire invasion rubbish," Spike pointed out. "We'd definitely know about that."
Angel said nothing.
"Face it," said Spike. "He's dead. Dead for good. And he made a bloody mess of the world before he went out."
Angel shook his head. "He can't be dead," he insisted. "We've still got that Amulet, remember? The one that's supposed to be in the Wolfram and Hart archives, back in the past. If he'd actually died, for good, history would already have gotten rewritten."
"You keep telling yourself that, mate," said Spike. "Lots of time travelers still alive out there, you know."
Angel frowned. "Like who?" he asked. "Who else could have taken the Amulet back in time?"
Spike shrugged. "Dunno. But my money's on the Witch."
Angel paused. Realizing that… actually… Willow might just be a powerful enough witch to do something like that.
"Doctor's dead," Spike said. "Joanna's never waking up. Might as well move on, and try to save the world."
Angel nodded. He placed the small stone in Joanna's outstretched palm, and closed her hand around it. Then straightened, and turned back to Spike.
"Better break the news to Buffy," he said.
From behind him, there was the sudden rustle of blankets, and a gasp of breath. Angel and Spike both spun around, to discover the stone in Joanna's hand glowing, as she jerked upright, and opened her eyes.
"What…? Where…?" Joanna held a hand up to her head, and winced. "Ow…"
"Dead, you say?" Angel muttered, racing over to Joanna. He explained, in a few short sentences, what had happened, trying to get a hold of the stone that had, somehow, brought Joanna back.
"No, no," said Joanna, when Angel had finished. "This isn't because of the Doctor. It was like…" She rubbed her head, again, then realized she was still clutching something in her hand. She put her hand down, opened it, and stared at the stone.
"Lucky we put it there," Spike said.
"Lucky," Joanna repeated, her voice deadpan.
Then, in a burst of strength, Joanna threw it across the room, the stone shattering into little tiny pieces as it hit the opposite wall.
"Luck!" she shouted, anger in her eyes. "There's no luck! Someone's screwing around with us — with everything. Someone wants the Doctor where he is — wants us where we are — and wants Buffy doing whatever the hell she's doing."
"And wanted you out for the count," said Spike. "Until the right time."
"Why?" asked Angel.
"Because I worked it out," said Joanna. "The TBVs aren't
smart. Someone else has been telling them what to do! This entire war, between us and the TBVs, it's like a kid playing with toy soldiers. And we're the toy soldiers!"
Angel and Spike both looked at each other.
Joanna sighed, then stared off into the distance, her mind racing. "Someone told me," she said. "Just before I passed out. That I shouldn't work this stuff out, yet. That Sam Jones had…" She drifted off. Then turned to Angel and Spike. "My research!" she cried. "And Carolyn's notes. What happened to…?"
"It all got… destroyed," Angel confessed. "Before we found you. It's gone."
"Then that's it," said Joanna. "I must have been close. About to work something out that would have screwed up the master plan. Saved the Doctor. But whoever's running the show doesn't want him saved."
"Who's running the show?" asked Angel.
"No idea," said Joanna.
"It's obvious, isn't it?" Spike chimed in. "Same person who'd want to make sure that Amulet never travelled back in time."
They all looked at one another. Realizing that the clues were all there — torturing the Doctor, the Amulet, the brand new army of unstoppable vampires, even the 'Bringer of Death' title — and they'd been stupid enough to overlook them.
"But why hasn't the First killed him by now?" Angel asked.
"He's the Doctor," said Joanna. "He's not that easy to kill. Maybe the First just can't."
"Or doesn't want to," ventured Angel. "Wants to use the Doctor for something else."
"We better warn Buffy about this," said Spike.
But they all knew their suspicions had to be correct. That whoever was calling the shots had a huge amount of power. Because they tried to call Buffy. Over and over again.
And discovered they couldn't.
"He still isn't broken," Oliver pointed out.
The information didn't dent Razor's good mood. He waved it off with a grin and a shrug. "No. But this was the first time that he arranged for his human to get away, without even trying to get away himself."
"His faith in his friends is shattering," Leandra added. "His faith in humanity is shattering. And by the time he learns that we've been lying to him, we'll have reached singularity. And it'll be too late."
"Which means he's staying here, on purpose," Ed told them. "Because he thinks he's the only one who can destroy us."
"One more hostage," said Razor, "and he'll be broken. I promise."
Oliver looked dubious. He turned to Leandra. "You really believe this? One hostage could tip him over the edge?"
"Of course," said Leandra. Her smile widened. "Provided it's the right
Willow was the one who spotted Sam, first. Sam was sitting on one of the chairs in the front lobby of the Slayer Institution, her body slumped, staring straight ahead, the color drained from her face.
Willow went up to her, and offered her a sympathetic smile. "It's hard on all of us," she said. "Knowing the truth about what's happening to the Doctor."
"Yes," said Sam, her voice very quiet. "The truth."
Willow dropped the smile, analyzing Sam carefully. And realized that — maybe, just maybe — Sam wasn't talking about the information they'd just discovered from Audrey, about the Doctor's captivity.
"Riley told you something else?" Willow guessed.
Sam said nothing.
Willow's eyes widened, as she suddenly understood. "Riley told you everything
else," she said.
Sam took a deep breath. "I love him," she said. "I really, really love him." Her eyes fixed on the ground, as she tried to stop her hands from shaking. "He forgave me for not telling him the truth about me and the Doctor. It's my turn to forgive him for…"
Willow waited for her to go on, but Sam couldn't say the words.
"It's okay to be mad about it, you know," Willow offered. "What Riley did was pretty despicable. We all said it, at the time."
"I just… can't… exactly… believe it," Sam admitted. She looked up at Willow. "I know Riley. I know that, no matter what, he'd always help someone in trouble. He's so kind, so thoughtful, so heroic and noble and determined to do what's right. How could he possibly…?"
"Well, there was kind of a big jealousy thing going on," Willow provided. "And Professor Walsh was giving him super mind-controlling drugs, at the time, trying to turn him into a remorseless killing machine. So… maybe that had something to do with it."
Sam said nothing for a moment. "Riley didn't want to come here," she admitted. "When we first found out what was going on."
Willow wasn't sure what to say to this.
"It made sense," said Sam. "We'd been tracking a swarm of monsters, and Riley thought we should stay, and make sure we'd gotten all of them. After all, we were already there, and if any were left alive, they'd breed and we'd wind up in a bigger mess than when we started. The others were late, because… they were finishing up the job, for me and Riley."
"And Riley was right," said Sam. "It was our duty to stay, destroy the monsters, and help humanity. Even Buffy said that — you can't save the Doctor without saving the world, or he'll never forgive you. I know that." She took a deep breath. "But I just… couldn't… stand it!"
Willow nodded, again.
"That mental picture of what he looked like, after I rescued him on Ha'olam," said Sam, "it just kept replaying itself, over and over again, in my head. Seeing him so… shattered, defeated, so broken! I couldn't…" She sucked in another breath. "When it got too much, I sat Riley down, and told him the truth. About me and the Doctor."
"And made him come with you?" Willow guessed.
"No," said Sam. "I just told him that I couldn't stand it anymore, and I was leaving so I could rescue the Doctor. Now. I told Riley he could come with me, or stay behind. Riley… gave it some thought. But he chose to come, in the end." She gave a small, sad smile. "Riley was the one who told me to contact Buffy, in the first place. Otherwise, I wouldn't have known where to start."
"Maybe Riley really has changed," Willow offered. "I mean, since then, basically all the rest of us have changed. He could have changed, too."
Sam didn't answer.
"You're still mad at him, though," Willow observed.
"I just found out that my husband purposely locked up my best friend for two months, and stood aside while he was tortured," said Sam. "That's not the kind of thing you can just let go. I mean, I know we all make mistakes, but this…" She shook her head.
"Well, I don't know about Riley," Willow said. "But Faith tried to feed us all to a giant snake. I tried to kill every single person on the face of the Earth. And I'm betting a lot of those Initiative guys you've been hanging out with were personally responsible for torturing the Doctor while he was locked up. We've all made some pretty horrible mistakes, in the past. And now we're all here, fighting for good." Willow shrugged. "Change is possible."
Sam said nothing. She still seemed in a state of depressed shock, and Willow figured that would probably take a while to get over.
"Buffy loves the Doctor more than anything," Willow told her. "And Buffy forgave Riley. For all of it." She turned, to walk back to her office. "I just thought you should know that."
Sam said nothing for a long moment. But as Willow was about to leave the lobby, Sam called out, "Wait!"
Willow looked back over her shoulder.
Sam was standing, facing Willow, her hand outstretched. "Riley… said something else," she confessed. "When the Doctor — in his own future — mentioned this incident to Riley, the Doctor said… millions of people died."
Willow blinked. Then blinked again. "But millions haven't died. Not even close."
"Not yet," said Sam.