Sergeant Morgan shook his head slowly. “It’s a good idea, Xander, but I don’t think it would work.”
Spike leaned against the wall, carefully out of Xander’s line of sight. He’d been ready to take a shot at intimidating the big half-Kobarien demon if necessary but it had been obvious from the start that the drill sergeant wasn’t enthusiastic about Xander’s plan and Spike relaxed, knowing Xander wouldn’t be taking his crazy notion any further. Xander had promised that if Sgt. Morgan didn’t think it was a good idea, then he’d drop it.
Sergeant Morgan had shown no surprise at their unexpected arrival on his doorstep, welcoming them into his small house and listening without comment as Xander explained his plan to convert the heathen. He had listened calmly until Xander finished, not showing any overt signs of rejecting Xander’s idea but Spike had seen the way he hadn’t reacted - not leaning forward in his chair, no gleam of interest or excitement in his eyes, his heart rate not altering even slightly - and knew that the experienced mentor was simply letting a promising recruit have his full say before shooting him down gently.
“To begin with, I did a records check on Riley Finn when Rupert called us with his name. He had an exemplary record, was picked for Special Ops training, and then…nothing. There is no record of any current assignment, posting, rank, not even pay records. He simply vanishes from any records I can track.”
“Does that mean something?” Xander asked. “Isn’t that standard for someone assigned to a covert mission?”
“This is beyond the normal. There should be some records showing he’s still in active duty status.” Sgt. Morgan waved a hand. “What’s important about the records is that I think we can assume that he is typical for the Initiative, that they hand-picked men out of Covert Ops for this assignment.” He gave Xander a long, measuring look. “What your idea doesn’t take into consideration is the nature of the soldiers chosen for this kind of operation, Xander. These are men who have been trained to not ask questions, to follow orders without hesitation. They have been told that anything else will lead to deaths in the unit and the failure of their mission. Don’t doubt that they believe it, Xander. If they were the type of people who questioned authority, who wouldn’t blindly obey orders, they wouldn’t have been chosen for this assignment.”
From his position flanking Xander, Spike carefully suppressed a grin. As he’d hoped, Sgt. Morgan had been able to logically explain the flaw in Xander’s plan. Spike knew he wasn’t able to respond rationally to discussions about the Initiative. He was just glad that Sgt. Morgan was able to do it for him.
“But if we got them somewhere and forced them to listen…” Xander began, obviously not ready to give up at the first sign of discouragement.
“You would have an unreceptive, hostile audience who will assume they are being tricked by the enemy.” Sgt. Morgan finished for him. “Xander, you don’t get into covert ops without at least some training in resisting captivity, including torture and brainwashing.” He smiled at Xander’s appalled look. “That’s how they are going to view any new information given to them while being held prisoner: as an attempt to brainwash them or as a prelude to extracting information.”
Xander’s shoulders slumped and Sgt. Morgan patted his knee kindly. “It’s a good idea,” he repeated, “and I wish I thought it would work. But it’s not worth the risk. There’s too much chance of someone getting hurt or killed and too little possibility that any of them would listen.”
Spike put his hands on Xander’s shoulders, rubbing them reassuringly and Xander sighed, leaning back into his touch. “I guess I knew I was grasping at straws but we know who two of them are now, I thought that would help.” Which reminded him, he needed to get the names from Buffy of Riley’s friends, the one’s she suspected were in the Initiative as well.
“I’m not saying the soldiers aren’t good men,” Sgt. Morgan was saying. “If you could have a few drinks with them, one on one, and just talk to them about your experiences, you might be able to get through their conditioning and get them to thinking. The problem is, you can’t do that. Even in Sunnydale, you can’t bring up the subject of demons in casual conversation.” He smiled crookedly. “Not to mention that they would instantly be suspicious and on guard if you did bring up a subject that’s the core of their mission.”
That had pretty much ended the discussion about Xander’s plan to make the soldiers see reason. They’d stayed for awhile, comparing notes and coming to the depressing conclusion that they still had way too little information about the Initiative. Sgt. Morgan had confessed that he had exhausted his resources without much success.
“I’ve been unable to find anyone who knows anything, or that will admit to knowing anything. Whoever is behind this group, they have done an excellent job covering their tracks,” he told them. “I’ve traced every recent transfer from our base and confirmed the soldiers are where they are supposed to be. They’ve shut the local base out of this completely.”
“The construction companies too,” Xander told him. “No one I’ve talked to has heard of any job on the college campus, except for the new community center and that’s definitely unrelated.”
“Learned anything about this Professor Walsh?” Spike asked. He’d given the name to the Watcher but he wasn’t good with contemporary information retrieval. The Watcher had passed the name on to the demon community to research.
“Enough to fit the pattern. Maggie Walsh has a reputation as a brilliant scientist and Sunnydale U considers themselves unbelievably lucky she agreed to come here. She made her reputation with her studies on Operant Conditioning,” Sgt. Morgan finished grimly.
“What’s that?” Xander asked for both of them, knowing Spike wouldn’t.
“Behavior modification through the use of positive and negative reinforcement,” Sgt. Morgan summarized crisply. “It fits with the information you gave us about what you saw in their facility,” he added, looking at Spike. “The question is: are they experimenting on demons as a side project, or is it the main focus of their operation?”
Seeing the shuttered look on Spike’s face at the blunt description, Xander hurriedly shifted the subject. “So, what do we do about these guys?” he asked.
“We sit tight and continue to gather information. We’ve done everything we can to warn the peaceful demons in town to be cautious, to stay off the streets, to not rely on the usual Sunnydale blindness to cover slips. That’s all we can do for now.”
“Sit on our arses and wait for Armageddon to come knocking?” Spike asked him in disbelief. “That’s your plan? Sure you don’t want us to drop our trousers and bend over while we’re at it?”
“It’s ok.” Sergeant Morgan told Xander. He looked at Spike and spoke strongly: “No, I’m not suggesting we wait for an attack before defending ourselves. I’m saying we’re not ready yet. In my experience, waiting is always preferable to going off half-cocked. Something is bound to break loose: another demon will escape like you did and be able to tell us what happened to them, or someone will get drunk and talk out of turn. Who knows? Right now, the situation is relatively contained. Their need for secrecy hampers them, they have to be cautious or they risk exposing their operation. We don’t want to provoke a situation where they feel justified in declaring martial law and simply taking over the town.”
Xander’s heart sank as he thought about that possibility. A group able to hide themselves for as long and as well as the Initiative had - especially considering that they had built an enormous base in town without anyone knowing about it - had to have enough power to control the media. Sunnydale had been quarantined and surrounded by federal troops during the “laryngitis epidemic”. All the Initiative had to do was say something like that had broken out again. Then no one would get in or out while they cleaned up. He didn’t like to think of what an Initiative ‘clean up’ would encompass.
“Satisfied, pet?” Spike asked as they left.
Xander flashed him a quick look. “We’ll think of something, Spike. This can’t just keep going on the way it is. Sgt. Morgan is right, something’s bound to give.”
Spike nodded sharply. He’d seen the wisdom behind Sgt. Morgan’s advice, it was just that it was hard to wait instead of taking the war to the enemy. It went against the grain, this sitting around waiting. Still, he wasn’t an inexperienced fledgling anymore. He’d long since learned to wait for the timing to be right. He could do it now.
Not like he had a choice.
“So, disappointed you didn’t get to intimidate Sgt. Morgan?” Xander asked, dark eyes sparkling with mischief.
“I never…” he began indignantly and Xander just laughed at him.
“Please, like I don’t know the way you think?”
“Not fair,” he grumbled, pulling Xander in for a kiss. “Shouldn’t be able to read me that way.”
Xander kissed him again, pressing his body full length against Spike’s so he could feel his boy’s burgeoning erection. “You’re deviousness is one of your most attractive qualities,” he breathed huskily.
“Yeah? What are the others?” Spike’s arms held the strong body to his own.
“Let’s go home and I’ll make you a list,” Xander offered, rubbing against him.
Oh yeah, patrol could definitely wait, Spike thought as he slid his arms down to cup Xander’s ass and grind his boy against him.
Fuck patrol. He had some other territory to claim.
Waiting for Buffy in the ground floor lobby of her dorm, Xander wondered if there was some magical difference between college and high school or if there was just something about the fact that the dorm was the students’ home that made it so different. He could, and had, sat for hours in empty classrooms and in the courtyard at the high school without anyone noticing him. Not so here. In the hour he’d been waiting for Buffy, no less than five women had stopped to talk to him.
In his opinion, he stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb, with his long hair, work clothes and lack of books but the women in Buffy’s dorm didn’t seem to mind his obvious “townie” status. Maybe it was the mysterious lure of being ‘taken’ that had suddenly and unexpectedly turned him into a chick magnet. How else to explain the fact that these women seemed to find him interesting and attractive when he was doing nothing but sitting in a battered but comfortable armchair waiting for someone? Probably it was because he was feeling pretty damn good, all things considered. Work was going well, it was a beautiful sunny day, and, oh yeah, he and Spike had spent all night last night trying to prove who had more stamina between the sheets.
He hadn’t minded at all that Spike had won, he thought with a reminiscent smile that made Sue? Susie? blush and smile back at him.
“Hey, Buffy. Got a minute?”
Buffy had agreed to call Riley with surprisingly little resistance. As he’d suspected, she was tired of waiting for Riley to either shit or get off the pot and ready to confront him. She hadn’t really planned on Xander being there but she’d been willing to be flexible on that point. Well, willing once Xander pointed out that, as a neutral third party, he could keep the conversation on track.
Ok, she’d looked a little skeptical but she hadn’t called him on his self-proclaimed status of being Switzerland. Or maybe Sweden. One of the S countries.
At Xander’s suggestion, Buffy had asked Riley to meet her at the little diner where Xander had had his first real conversation with Spike and where Spike and Joyce had made up after the Hansel-and-Gretel demon had almost destroyed their friendship. It was ridiculously superstitious of him, but he thought of the place as lucky. Still, it was a good place for a wary meeting: quiet, frequently empty - he sometimes wondered how they managed to stay in business - neutral territory, and with a lazy staff that had no interest in eavesdropping on conversations.
They hadn’t told Riley that Xander was going to be joining them. Buffy had just insisted that she and Riley needed to talk and, as Xander hoped, Riley had reluctantly agreed to meet her.
One casual conversation over beer, or in this case, hot chocolate, coming up.
It wasn’t cheating. As promised, he’d completely given up on his idea of capturing the soldiers and forcing them to listen. This was a completely new plan, one suggested by Sgt. Morgan, Xander told himself virtuously. A friendly sit down, one on one, to point out the facts of life to Riley Finn. Buffy was there to back him up on the off chance her boyfriend got any ideas about dragging him off anywhere for questioning. Not that he was really expecting anything like that to happen but, if Spike ever found out about this, he wanted to be able to assure his overprotective lover that he had been perfectly safe the entire time.
He waited down the street as Buffy entered the diner. They’d set the meeting time for early afternoon, knowing that meeting after dark would make Riley suspicious and Xander and Buffy arrived a good ten minutes early, giving Xander time to check the area while Buffy went in first.
Riley arrived exactly on time and alone. Circling the block casually, Xander found no sign of any watchers. He entered the diner ten minutes after Riley got there, wanting to give them some time for personal issues, and saw that Buffy and Riley were sitting stiffly across from each other in a booth. They didn’t seem to be talking at all. Buffy was staring out the window and Riley’s face was a frozen mask. Obviously, the personal stuff hadn’t gone well.
Sighing, Xander ordered three hot chocolates at the counter and carried them over to the booth.
“Hi, guys,” he greeted them casually, ignoring the brittle atmosphere. “Hope you like hot chocolate, Riley.” He set the three mugs down on the table and snagged a nearby chair, spinning it around and sitting down so he straddled the seat, his arms crossed over the back of the chair, joining them but not sliding into the booth with them. “We didn’t really get much of a chance to meet the other day,” he said as affably as he could manage. “I’m Xander Harris.”
Riley stared at him with unfriendly eyes, then looked at Buffy. “What’s going on here, Buffy? I thought you said you wanted to talk to me.”
“I did. I do. I…”
“We thought it might clear the air if we all talked,” Xander filled in when Buffy stumbled to a halt.
“You mean you’re going to explain why you’re helping a demon?” Riley looked poised to leave at any second. “Or are you going to claim that wasn’t Hostile 17?”
“It’s complicated, Riley. Things aren’t as black and white as you think.” Buffy began.
Riley began sliding out of the booth. “It’s not complicated, Buffy. You told me you were the Slayer. You’re supposed to kill demons, not cover for them.”
Xander shifted his chair to block Riley and leaned forward, one arm on the table one on the back of Riley’s seat, staring eye to eye with the soldier. “She does kill demons. She’s probably killed way more than you ever will. But she knows the difference between harmless demons and dangerous ones. Something you seem to have a problem with.”
“Are you claiming Hostile 17 isn’t dangerous?” Riley gave a short bark of disbelieving laughter but thankfully didn’t try and push past Xander to get out. “He put two men in the hospital during his escape - and that was with the chip. He shouldn’t have been able to hurt anyone at all.”
With an effort, Xander kept his face expressionless. Riley had just confirmed what they had suspected, that something physical had been done to Spike. A “chip”. It had to mean some sort of computer hardware, he couldn’t think of any other use for the term.
“Actually, I meant the werewolf and the baby Drak’taash you’re holding prisoner, among others. You have to know that werewolves are normal humans 27 days out of 30 and you must be aware that a Drak’taash cub isn’t capable of hurting anyone.”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss…”
“Riley,” Buffy interrupted, her voice quiet but intense. “I know you guys have done a lot of good but there’s a lot of things you don’t understand about the demon world. They’re not all dangerous. Some of them are completely harmless.”
“And your proof of that is something that kills and infects humans, a baby whose parents took two teams to subdue, and Hostile 17?” Riley shot back at her.
“Yes,” Buffy answered strongly. “God, don’t be such a bigot, Riley. No one asks to become a werewolf but getting bit shouldn’t be a death sentence either. Werewolves just have to be contained for three nights a month, the rest of the time they’re completely human. The only thing that makes a Drak’taash hostile towards anyone is if someone threatens their babies. You created the problem by taking their child. And by taking their baby, you made sure they were dangerous to anyone and anything they ran into while they were searching for their kid.” Buffy had regained her normal confidence and she wasn’t cutting Riley any slack as she pointed out the facts to him.
“I’m the Slayer. This is my turf you’re playing on, Riley. You people are in way over your heads. You’re messing with things you don’t understand and causing problems you won’t even see coming.”
“Among other things,” Xander added, so proud of Buffy he could hardly keep track of the conversation. He should never have doubted which side she’d come down on. “Among other things, you’re risking an all out war. Demons who would never hurt anyone, who wouldn’t even show themselves in public under ordinary circumstances, are going to band together to stop you if you keep this up.”
“Is that a threat?”
“It’s a warning, you idiot,” Xander said flatly. “You push this town too far and, sooner or later, the town is going to push back.”
“Both of you, back off.” Buffy ordered as Xander and Riley glared heatedly at each other. “I’m choking on the testosterone here.”
Xander sat back and was surprised when, after a moment, Riley did too. Ok, so they had been just one second shy of pawing dirt at each other but the other man just got his back up. And, hey, it wasn‘t like Buffy wasn’t sweating some testosterone too with her “I’m the Slayer” speech, he thought with a carefully suppressed grin.
Buffy took a deep breath. “Riley, I don’t expect you to just take my word about this but I’m hoping you’ll at least think about what I’m saying. You guys have no idea of what you are stirring up in this town.”
“How is what we’re doing different from what you do?” Riley asked resentfully.
“The Slayer helps keep the balance, Riley. If demons aren’t causing problems, I don’t hunt them. The harmless demons know that. Your group has every demon in town scared.”
“The kind of scared that turns to angry,” Xander added, remembering Ethan Rayne’s words. “Even harmless demons will fight back eventually.”
Xander couldn’t tell if they were getting through at all. There was no expression on Riley’s face or in his eyes but he hadn’t left and he was listening. Maybe that counted for something.
“When we ran into each other on patrol that night,” Buffy said quietly. “I hoped we could work together. Things had been going so well up ‘til then. Finding out that we were in the same line of work - it just seemed to give us more in common. I was glad I didn’t have to lie to you anymore about what I am - what I do.”
She shot a quick glance at Xander who tried to look like he wasn’t listening as she continued.
“I don’t think you’re the kind of person who would deliberately hurt something that wasn’t dangerous, Riley. I hope I’m right because, if I’m wrong, you’re not the man I thought you were.”
Riley was silenced by that. Buffy waited for him to say something, then slid out of the booth with a nearly inaudible sigh. “Thanks for agreeing to meet with me,” she said. “Let’s go Xander.”
Riley didn’t make a move to stop her and Xander’s jaw tightened.
“Give us a minute, Buffy. I’ll be right behind you.”
Buffy hesitated, looking suspiciously between Riley’s puzzled face and Xander’s noncommittal one, and Xander gave her a reassuring smile. “I promise, we’ll be cool. Just need a few minutes of guy time,” he said lightly.
“Ok,” she said slowly, “I’ll be right outside.”
It wasn’t clear which one of them her words were aimed at but Xander suspected it was him. He watched as she walked to the door, glancing back over her shoulders, not saying anything until the door closed behind her. Then he turned to Riley.
“You’re an idiot,” he said pleasantly, enjoying the other man’s surprise at his bluntness. “Buffy’s an amazing person. She’s strong, she’s got more courage than anyone you will ever known, she’s funny, not to mention beautiful. Most guys would kill to have someone like that in love with them and all you’re interested in doing is breaking her heart. I don’t give a damn what you’re involved in or how important you think it is, get your head on straight or get the hell out of her life. She’s in love with you but she’s not going to wait forever for you to get your head out of your ass.”
He shoved back his chair, standing and staring down at the other man, who just gaped at him. “And by the way, you should ask yourself what your little group would do to the Slayer if they ran across her in a cemetery doing her job. I’m guessing that if anyone but you had seen her fighting, she’d be in one of your little cells right now, waiting to be experimented on to find out what makes her different from other girls.” He waited for that to sink in and added: “Are you really sure you’re on the right side when your people would do that to your girlfriend?”
Leaving Riley at the table, Xander strode out of the room without looking back.