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Nothing the Same, Book 4, Ch. 22

Nothing the Same, Book 4
Chapter: 22/?
Pairing: S/X, established relationship
Rating: PG13 - NC-17 Individual chapters will carry specific warnings.
Feedback & concrit: yes, please
Disclaimer: don't own them, never will, just playing with them
Spoilers: Primarily season 5, but anything from Season 1 on.
Summary: sequel to Nothing the Same , Books 1 - 3
Previous parts here


Chapter 22

Buffy crumpled up the letter and sat holding it, staring angrily out over the front lawn. Xander sat beside her, deliberately looking down at his hands, wanting to give her as much privacy as he could. Dawn was still at school and Joyce was at work. He’d asked Buffy to meet him at the house, knowing how little privacy she had at the dorm, even without a roommate.

“So that’s it?” she said tightly. “He doesn’t even have the guts to tell me to my face he’s running out on me?”

Xander winced. “I’m not sure…” he began uncomfortably.

“Don’t.” Her angry voice cut him off. “Don’t make excuses for him.” With a sudden convulsive move, she flung the wadded up letter away. The light-weight ball of paper didn’t go far, dropping soundlessly into the bushes just past the porch railing.

“He left me, Xander. After everything we’ve been through, he’s just walking away. And all he has to say for himself is ‘sorry’ and he hopes that I can forgive him someday.” Despite her dry eyes, her voice was rough with unshed tears. “He didn’t even tell me why. Just some bullshit about being transferred.”

Her gaze swung towards him in sudden accusation. “You knew. You knew he was leaving and you didn’t say anything. He gave you that letter. If he had time to see you, then he sure as hell had time to explain things to me.”

Xander hesitated. He’d wanted to spare Buffy knowing what exactly Riley had gotten involved in but he hadn’t come up with anything else to explain Riley’s sudden decision to leave.

“He wasn’t given a choice, Buffy. He was transferred out of town for a reason.” He met her eyes squarely. “He didn’t want to see you because he knew that if he did, he’d have to explain, and he didn’t want to hurt you more than he had to. He didn’t want you to know what he’s been doing.”

“What are you talking about?”

Xander prayed that Buffy was as ignorant of suck houses as he had been before Spike enlightened him. “He got addicted. To something you pretty much can only find on the Hellmouth,” he told her. “I found out about it and confronted him. We both agreed he needed to leave before he got himself or anyone else killed.” He wasn’t about to drag either Spike or Sgt. Morgan into this. If Buffy got angry with anyone over Riley leaving, it should be him. Or Riley.

“Addicted?” Buffy asked disbelievingly. “Riley doesn’t do drugs. He’s like Mr. Clean Living, my-body-is-a-temple guy. Addicted to what?”

“It’s not that kind of addiction,” he said uncomfortably.

“Then what kind is it?” Buffy demanded. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Yeah, he should have known he’d never be able to bluff his way through this. “He’s been letting vampires drink from him. He’s addicted to the bite.”

She shook her head, her eyes wide with disbelief. “That’s crazy. No-one would…”

He cut her off. “You let yourself be bitten by Dracula.”

Color rose in her cheeks. “Not willingly. He was trying to kill me,” she said defensively.

“So, you didn’t hide the bite mark from everyone?” he reminded her pointedly. “You didn’t spend the day thinking about him biting you again? If Spike hadn’t killed him, you wouldn’t have gone to find him the next night?”

The color deepened. “Fine. But that was Dracula, not just an ordinary vampire. He had… powers. And Riley hates vampires. There’s no way…”

“He didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did. He left town because he was putting himself and everyone else in danger as long as he couldn’t stop craving the bite.” He put a hand out tentatively, then let it drop without touching her. “He needed to leave, Buffy, before some vampire went too far and killed him,” he told her gently, then wished he’d kept his mouth shut as she frowned, puzzled.

“Went too far,” she repeated. “How…? How was he getting bitten without being killed?” she asked suspiciously.

Left with no choice, Xander reluctantly explained the suck house to her, leaving out the fact that the human customers got off on the bite sexually. Buffy stood up halfway through his explanation and stalked across the length of the porch with short, angry strides. She turned to face him when she reached the end, fists clenched and looking like she was ready to punch someone any minute.

“So you’re telling me that people pay money to have vampires bite them?”

Xander nodded.

“Where is this place?”

“Gone,” he said quickly. “Spike cleaned it out two nights ago, as soon as he found out about it.”

And that was exactly the wrong thing to say, he realized belatedly. Like Spike, Buffy took her revenge very personally. It was never enough to know that someone had taken care of the problem for her. For one moment, he thought she was going to lose it entirely, but then she whirled around and grabbed the railing with both hands, holding so tightly the wood groaned in protest. She bowed her head and her ragged breaths were the only sound as she fought for control, clinging to the railing like it was her only anchor in a world gone insane.

“How long has this been going on?” she asked brokenly. “How long has he been lying to me?”

“I don’t know,” Xander told her truthfully. “I do know that he didn’t mean to hurt you.”

She laughed bitterly, straightening up a little but still not turning to face him. “And that makes it all better, I suppose.”

“Of course not. Buffy…”

“No!” She spun to face him, her eyes were red-rimmed but her cheeks showed no sign of tears. “The man got himself bit by a vampire. He lied to me. And now he’s run off without even having the guts to try and salvage anything from our relationship.” Her laugh was bitter. “Tell me that you understand, Xander. Because I sure as hell don’t.”

“He’s an addict, Buffy. There’s nothing to understand. Nobody just wakes up one day and decides to become addicted. They’re thinking a drink would make them feel good, not ‘I guess I’ll go get myself addicted’,” he said sharply, speaking from his own bitter experience of growing up with an alcoholic. He hadn’t cut ties with his father because the man was an alcoholic. He’d done it because his father refused to accept his addiction or do anything about it. At least Riley was trying to stop. “He left because the Hellmouth is the worst place for him to be, not because he doesn’t love you.” His voice gentled. “He can’t get better here, Buffy. And he has enough sense to know that.”

“But why didn’t he come to me? Why didn’t he tell me what was going on?” Bewildered hurt was replacing the anger.

“He didn’t want you to know. He didn’t want anyone to know.”

“I could have helped him.”

Xander shook his head, aching for her. “You’re the Slayer, Buffy.” He got to his feet and crossed over to where she leaned against the railing. “Without meaning to, you remind him of what he’s trying to avoid. If Riley’s problem was alcohol, would you expect him to stay sober if he lived with someone who worked in a bar all day and came home smelling of booze every night?” He pulled her into his arms, relieved when she buried her head in his chest and let her tense muscles relax.

“What does it say about me that I didn’t even know he had a problem?” she said, her voice breaking. “I love him and I didn’t even know.”

“It says that Riley got good at hiding things from you. It says that he’s an addict, and addicts lie, especially to the people they love.” She shook her head, her hair shifting against him at the small movement. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Buffy. This isn’t your fault.”

She didn’t answer, didn’t move, but after a moment, Xander felt the dampness of tears against his shirt. He stroked her hair, making soft soothing noises, and just held her. Later, she would be ready to listen if he pointed out that she and Riley had spent more time at odds this year than in harmony. For right now, she needed time to mourn the loss of someone she loved.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sitting in the magic shop three days later, Xander closed the book he’d been reading and shoved it away.

“Nothing?” Buffy asked wearily.

“Nothing,” he confirmed. “Nada. A big fat zero.”

For almost the first time, Giles’ books were proving useless. They hadn’t found a single reference to Glorificus and they were running out of books to check. The demon community had drawn a similar blank, even Mr. Okolo’s relatives hadn’t heard of Glory.

“I still think this means that she’s not important enough to put in the books,” Buffy told him, slapping her own book closed and then sneezing as the book took its revenge with a puff of dust.

They were reduced to reading books that hadn’t been opened in years - mostly because they were completely useless: crumbling diaries of mad visionaries, books whose information had been rendered obsolete decades, if not centuries earlier, and what Xander swore was a demon’s elementary school primer on other demon species.

Buffy had been quiet, pitching in to help with the research with little of her usual joking complaints. She’d spent a lot of time in the training room, beating up on the equipment, since Giles and Sergeant Morgan had unceremoniously taken her off patrol for the last three nights.

How they’d managed that, Xander still didn’t know. Especially since Riley was an absolutely taboo subject. The soldier’s name hadn’t been mentioned even once in their research sessions and even Spike and Ethan had managed to go without commenting on his disappearance - at least in front of Buffy. Buffy was burying her hurt and anger, working through it on her own. From her conversation, you wouldn’t know anyone named Riley Finn even existed.

Giles pulled his glasses off and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “I fear we are running out of options. And, much as I would love to believe that Glory simply isn’t important enough to be in the books, I don’t think we can make that assumption. The problem is we’ve exhausted the materials I have here, and we’re still coming up empty.”

Buffy raised her head from the table. “You have more books somewhere…?” she asked curiously, then her eyes widened and she shook her head vehemently. “Oh, no. No way. The Council tried to kill me. And they fired you. No way are we going to ask them for help.”

“I don’t think we have a choice, Buffy. The resources that the Watchers Council has at their disposal are far greater than my own. I mean the Central Library alone…”

“Don’t talk about the books again. You get all … and sometimes there’s drool.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed that,” Ethan said. He’d refused to help with the research for the last two days, telling them they were wasting their time. Instead, he’d spent the time puttering around the shop, doing god knows what with various herbs. Xander assumed it wasn’t dangerous because Giles hadn’t said anything.

“My mythical drool notwithstanding,” Giles told them. “The Watchers Council has the most extensive occult and demonology reference library known to humans. If anyone has anything on Glory, it’s the Council.”

“I don’t trust them,” Buffy repeated. Her eyes flickered in Ethan’s direction and then back to Giles and she frowned, obviously wanting to say something about Dawn but not daring to. “I haven’t taken orders from them in years and you were fired. Why would they help us?”

“Good question,” Ethan muttered, leaving the counter and coming to join them at the table.

“Because we are on the same side. If Glory is as big a threat as she seems to be, they won’t want her winning.”

“On the other hand, they’ve undoubtedly been hoping to get rid of Miss Summers for years now,” Ethan pointed out maliciously. “This may be their best chance yet.”

Giles’s exasperation showed clearly. “You’re not helping.” Ethan smirked.

“I know, and it just sickens me.”

Xander cleared his throat, cutting off the exchange before it turned into an argument. “Can we use the Council library without telling them what we’re looking for?”

Giles shook his head. “I doubt very much they would give me free access. It’s more a question of whether they are willing to research Glory and the Key for us.”

Xander was fairly sure that Buffy’s suppressed wince hadn’t slipped by Ethan. They were really going to have to do something soon or Ethan was going to figure out what they were hiding from him.

The phone rang just as Buffy began objected to telling the Council anything and Xander went to answer it. “Magic Box.” He refused to use the tongue-twisting slogan Giles had come up with.

“Xander?”

“Mr. Olsen, how are you?”

“Are you and Mr. Giles available to meet me at the hospital right away?”

“Of course,” Xander told him. Mr. Olsen wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” he asked anxiously.

“No, no, it’s not that.” Despite the reassurance, Mr. Olsen’s voice was strained. “Do you remember when we talked about the alarming increase in the number of mental patients at the hospital?” He waited just long enough for Xander’s acknowledgement, then continued: “They’re dead. Something’s killed them.”

“My god! All of them?” Xander was peripherally aware that the others had fallen silent at his shocked exclamation. “How?”

“That’s what I need your help to determine. It’s not a normal death, not even for murder.” Mr. Olsen sounded shaken. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“We’ll be there in 15 minutes,” Xander promised, his stomach twisting at the thought of something killing helpless people. He wasn’t sure how they could help, but Mr. Olsen obviously thought they could and that was good enough for him.

“Problem,” he announced, hanging up the phone. “We’re needed at the hospital.”

~~~~~~~~

In the end, Buffy and Ethan came with them. Buffy was worried that whatever had killed the patients might still be around and Ethan had simply reached for his coat and slid his arms into the sleeves, only looking up when Buffy asked him where he thought he was going.

“Who else?” Ethan asked, giving them a raised-eyebrowed look. “If a half-breed Lobarrrhyn can’t tell how a human was killed, that probably means the deaths are magical, not demonic in origin. I am far more likely to recognize a spell than you, Ripper. So, unless you’re planning on having Ms. Maclay examine the bodies of a dozen murder victims, I rather think you’ll need my expertise.”

The thought of making the gentle wiccan deal with the aftermath of a mass murder obviously gave Giles pause. “Thank you, Ethan,” he said. “You’re quite right.”

Buffy scowled but didn’t object further. She hadn’t reconciled herself to Ethan’s involvement with Giles and generally made no attempt to conceal her dislike of the chaos mage. Hearing the two snipe at each other, Xander was reminded of Buffy and Spike’s interactions back in high school. He’d grown accustomed to Ethan’s presence in their lives and got along fairly well with the older man. Of course, he remained grateful to Ethan for deactivating Spike’s chip and it probably didn’t hurt that Ethan knew he had blackmail material handy since Ethan still hadn’t told Giles about the tracking spell he’d put on Giles.

Shrugging into his own coat, Xander suppressed a smile. He couldn’t decide if Giles would go ballistic, if and when he found out about the tracking spell, or think it was cute - like he thought some of Spike’s over-the-top protectiveness was cute. Fortunately, Ethan obviously couldn’t decide which way Giles would take it either, which meant that he mostly behaved himself. As much as he was able to anyway.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mr. Olsen met them in the hospital lobby and led them downstairs to the mental ward.

“It’s a shame, really, that they keep the patients down here,” he said, leading them through a set of double doors, obviously usually kept locked, and into a drab institutional hallway. “I do think the patients would do better with a bit more cheerful atmosphere, not to mention windows, but the hospital seems to think this is more secure.”

“Fat lot of good that obviously did,” Ethan commented.

Secure was the word for it, Xander thought with a shiver, looking around at the off-white cement brick walls. They were underground and the hallway was without even the cheerful posters that adorned the upstairs halls. Their footsteps sounded loudly in the empty space and Xander found he was unconsciously softening his steps, trying to keep the noise down.

“How did someone get in?” Giles asked.

“The police have no idea. I believe they are examining the ventilator shafts now,” Mr. Olsen told them. “Of course, we aren’t absolutely sure this was murder, so I’m not sure how hard they are looking.”

“What does that mean?” Xander asked, Buffy’s question overlapping his.

“I thought you said they were murdered?”

“I believe they were murdered,” Mr. Olsen told her. “However I’m afraid the police seem a bit more inclined towards believing it is a medical issue.” He gestured towards doors on either side of the hall. “The bodies are in there.”

As they approached, one of the doors opened and a dark-haired man in hospital scrubs stuck his head out. He frowned at the size of the group. “I thought you said only two people, Mr. O?”

“Sorry, Ben,” Mr. Olsen answered. “They brought colleagues along, who also might be of assistance.” He gestured towards Giles. “Professor Giles is a chemical biologist, Ben. As I said, I’d very much like him to examine the bodies, and the… substance.”

“Not like we don’t have enough of it to spare,” the young man said, his eyes lingering on Buffy. Xander wondered if he was admiring her admittedly skimpy silk top, or just wondering what kind of “assistance” she provided “Professor Giles”. Of course, he didn’t look like the colleague of a biologist either, but the intern guy hopefully assumed he was there for grunt labor, like shifting bodies and collecting samples.

Not for the first time, Xander acknowledged that, as a group, they sucked at undercover type work.

“Ben is an intern here,” Mr. Olsen informed them. “He is often assigned to the mental ward and, when my wife called me about the deaths, was kind enough to allow me to bring you in.”

Behind Mr. Olsen’s head, Ben grimaced and Xander studied him, wondering if the distaste was for the deaths or for the mental patients themselves. The intern saw him watching and gave him a friendly smile, which did nothing to hide the shadows behind his eyes.

“We all just want to find out what happened,” Ben said. “But you’ll have to be quick. They’re expecting the bodies in the morgue and I can’t delay moving them for long.”

“I don’t expect my examination will take long,” Giles said ponderously and Xander hid a smile. He was always amused at the way Giles could wrap his British tweed persona around him like a cloak of respectability. A quick glance showed Ethan was doing the same thing and Xander almost gave the game away by staring openly. Ethan suddenly looked prim and proper, every inch a harmless academician, despite his black and silver shirt. Quite a feat for a man who’s whole body usually oozed insolence for the entire world.

It seemed to satisfy Ben, though, and he pushed open the door and allowed them into the room. Xander filed in with the others and saw lines of beds with still patients in them.

There were 11 dead bodies in the room and Xander nearly vomited when he saw that the bodies were in restraints. Strapped to their beds, they’d been utterly helpless to defend themselves.

“There’s 8 more in the room across the hall,” Ben told them quietly. “We had to open a second ward to handle the overflow.”

Ben stayed back by the door as they moved as a group towards the closest body. It was a middle-aged man, heavy-set, eyes and mouth open in what looked like surprise.

“No one heard anything?” Giles asked quietly.

Mr. Olsen winced. “The on-duty nurse at the monitoring station heard some screams,” he said. “But she didn’t think they were anything unusual, just thought the patients were restless.”

The curl of nausea deepened inside him deepened. Bad enough to be attacked while helpless, but to have no one respond to your screams…

“There’s something…” Surprisingly, Ethan produced a slender flashlight from his pocket and shone it down into the man’s open mouth.

“Yes, that is what I wanted you to see,” Mr. Olsen said. “It’s the same for all of them. It looks like they suffocated, their mouths and noses filled with this.” He fished inside the patient’s mouth with something that looked like a popsicle stick and pulled out a wad of clear slimy… stuff, that stretched and clung and resisted being pulled free. As he did, a vile stench came with it, and they stepped back, choking and making disgusted sounds.

“What is that?” Buffy exclaimed, holding her nose.

“Man, that really smells,” Xander remembered belatedly that he was supposed to be some kind of scientist. “Fascinating.”

Hey, it worked for Spock.

“Can we get a sample, without touching it?” Ethan asked. Unlike the rest of them, he looked more intrigued than revolted.

“Yes, I brought a jar.” Mr. Olsen fumbled a jar out of his pocket and Xander took it from him, unscrewing the lid and holding it so Mr. Olsen could lower the blob of goo into the container. As soon as it was inside, Xander screwed the lid back on, relieved that the foul smell instantly lessened.

“Ideally, we should take a second sample,” Ethan said, crossing to the next patient and shining his flashlight into her mouth. “The question is, did they suffocate, or is the substance toxic?”

He straightened up and looked around at the circle of unenthusiastic faces. “Or perhaps a single sample will suffice,” he conceded.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ethan busied himself setting up a makeshift chemistry lab as soon as they returned to the magic shop. Xander watched in bemusement as the man practically hummed in contentment as he unceremoniously appropriated the hot plate from the shop’s office and began testing samples of the slimy stuff: heating some, chilling others and generally acting like someone who knew what he was doing.

Giles contacted Sgt. Morgan. Given the police involvement, they had decided it was time to “activate” the former members of the Initiative, now stationed at the army base as regular soldiers. The police had found nothing in the ventilations system, but a new mental patient was being admitted for observation even as they left the hospital - a teary-eyed woman who was babbling nonsense and tearing at her hair - and Giles thought it best to take precautions. It could be a coincidence that the victims were all mental patients - given that they were all attacked in the most remote and least accessible section of the hospital - but Giles didn’t think so.

He also didn’t think that the substance Ethan was testing was simply a previously unknown toxin, agreeing with Mr. Olsen that anything that killed multiple people, quickly and simultaneously, was highly unlikely to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. The patients had all been fine physically when they turned the lights out the previous evening. In the morning, they were all dead. Mrs. Olsen had walked into the middle of the police investigation when she’d arrived for her volunteer shift this morning. She’d called her husband immediately as soon as she heard how the patients had died.

Sergeant Morgan promised to have the three former Initiative soldiers guard the new mental patient until further notice, assuring Giles that there wouldn’t be many questions asked. Apparently civilians rarely questioned soldiers who simply stated flatly that they were under orders to do whatever it was they were doing. He also promised to send a couple of soldiers who were from the demon community to patrol the grounds and building of the hospital.

As Giles hung up the phone, he sighed, looking infinitely weary. “Well, I suppose there is nothing for the rest of us to do except hit the books,” he said bracingly.

Xander reached for his cell to call Spike and let him know he was safely back from the hospital and that he would be at the Magic Box for the evening. And maybe the foreseeable future, he thought glumly, hitting the speed dial.

~~~~~

*A/N - Bits of dialogue borrowed from the episodes ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Triangle’

TBC


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