Summary of the
challenge: Buffy is dating Riley however she is not feeling fulfilled
in their relationship. Will one night out at the Bronze with Willow
change her life
Disclaimer: All things Buffy belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and lots of people in expensive suits. I'm not making any money here, just trying to create a happier Buffyverse for my favorite characters.
Spoilers: I borrow heavily from "The I in Team" for this chapter. Big alterations ahead for the remainder of S5.
A/N: Thanks to the best beta crew: Zigpal and Zenithar. There would be no writing without you guys.
Willow looked at her watched for the hundredth time and glanced at the door. Where is she? She's never this late. I hope nothing's wrong. The young witch glanced across the small table at Anya. She looked bored, and Willow hoped Xander would hurry back. A bored Anya was a dangerous one.
Suddenly, though, the ex-demon perked up, and the red head looked over her shoulder to see Xander strolling up. "Xander, you haven't been paying any attention to me tonight," the blonde whined. "You've just been peddling those processed food bricks."
Xander, in the act of eating said brick, mumbled, "Well, they serve a purpose, An. See, sell the bar, make money. Money means I can take you somewhere nice, or buy you pretty things."
Sipping from her soda, Willow swallowed a smirk. The pout Anya tried just didn't work. "It does make sense," the ex-demon grudged. "OK," she announced with a smile. "I support you."
The witch rolled her eyes. "Hey, guys. Don't you think it's strange Buffy's not here yet? I mean, she said she wanted to spend some quality time with us, you know, kinda reconnect."
"I don't know, Will. She's over an hour late. She's probably off 'living the life of Riley.' I don't think she's coming." Xander's eyes widened at his girlfriend's smirk. He glanced at Willow and sighed. She seemed to be oblivious to his accidental innuendo.
"But, she said…" the witch trailed off, a smile lighting her face. "See, here she is." She looked harder at the newly-arrived Slayer. Buffy had turned back toward the door as soon as she entered. She was obviously waiting for the group of young men that came through the door a few seconds behind her. "Oh, look. She brought Riley and some of his friends."
Willow watched numbly as the group came toward their table. "Hey, Will. Sorry for the late-itude."
Stuffing more of the Boost bar into his mouth, Xander said indistinctly, "Late? Huh. Hadn't noticed."
Buffy frowned at the comment. Riley, of course, just smiled and said, "Hope you don't mind us tagging along."
"No, of course not," Willow replied. She searched for something appropriate to say. "The more," she paused. No way could she complete the usual ending to this phrase. "The more, the more." Someone shoot me now, please. Why can't I just be quiet when there's nothing good to say?
Jumping into the awkward silence, Riley introduced his Initiative buddies and then led a group mission to the bar for drinks. Anya and Xander disappeared – to dance, the ex-demon said, but mostly to get a nervous Anya away from the military men.
"Hey, I didn't think you would mind," Buffy said, waving after Riley and his friends. "Riley and the guys were throwing me an impromptu celebration that made it, like, impossible not to invite them."
Willow just stared. I wonder if this was what Buffy was like back in L.A.? The young witch was angry and disappointed. She'd turned down a night with Tara to come to the Bronze. Now, it looked like she could have brought Tara along. It wasn't a core Scooby party night. "I thought this was supposed to be us, you know. Just the original Scoobies. If I would've known it was 'invite anyone you want' night, I had," she hesitated, "a friend I could've brought along." Glaring a bit, she continued. "It might have made the wait more enjoyable."
"I'm sorry." The Slayer seemed stunned at the rebuke. "My total bad." She cocked her head and examined her best friend. Leaning across the table, she asked, "So, who did you want to invite?"
There was no chance the young witch was going to answer that question. She wasn't ready to explain her relationship with Tara. "No one." Seeing Buffy smirk and raise an eyebrow, she rambled on. "I mean, it was just a hypothetical someone, which is no one, really. I didn't want to bring anyone. I was just saying-"
"Will, breathe. It's OK if you have a special someone to bring to our meetings. I mean, Xander always bring Anya." The two friends stared at each other. "OK. That wasn't really a good example, but you get the point."
"Sure, Buffy." Trying to steer the conversation in another direction, she asked, "So, what was the celebrating about?"
"Oh!" The blonde seemed to come to life. "I got in." At the look of confusion on Willow's face, Buffy elaborated. "In to the Initiative. Professor Walsh gave me the grand tour, and I mean grand as in the Grand Canyon. You'd never believe the size of it."
The news didn't surprise the red head, but it did make her uneasy. Gently feeling her way, she tried to clue the excited blonde into her concerns. "That's neat. So, what does that mean, exactly? You've joined them?"
"No, not exactly. It just means when I patrol I have a heavily armed team backing me up."
Well, the Scoobies had certainly never been armed with more than stakes or crosses, but Buffy had always had them at her back. Pushing back the faint sense of insult, Willow probed further. "Buffy, do you really think this is a good idea? I mean, don't you think you're rushing things a little?"
Buffy sat back in her chair and frowned. "I thought you liked Riley?"
No. I mean, really, Buffy. "I'm not talking about Riley. I mean with the Initiative. There's a bunch of stuff about them we still don't know."
"I know that," the Slayer protested. Then, contradicting her own words, she questioned, "Like what?"
"Well, what's their ultimate agenda?" Willow needed to make sure she got her point across. Her best friend didn't always understand subtlety. "OK. They neuter vampires and demons, but then what? Are they going to reintegrate them into society? Get them jobs as bagboys at Wal-Mart?"
Completely missing the real issue, the blonde mumbled, "Does Wal-Mart have bagboys?"
The witch closed her eyes. Suddenly, her head throbbed. "Buffy, focus here. That's not the point. What about that 314 thing Ethan told Giles about? I mean, he may not be an upstanding member of society, but it's something to think about. How do we know they aren't just using you? Or studying you to find a way to make a government-controlled version of a Slayer?"
Whatever reply the blonde might have made got cut off by a shrill beeping emanating from her purse. Grabbing the bag and pawing through the contents, she finally pulled out a pager.
"Since when did you have a pager?" Willow enquired.
Buffy ignored the question. Eyebrows bunched together, she read the display screen. Riley appeared behind her. "We have to go," he announced. "Mother needs us."
"Yeah. Sorry, Will. Gotta go." The Slayer jumped out of her chair and rushed out of the club, Riley and the gang at her side.
The Slayer tried to still the adrenaline rushing through her. She'd hunted demons for over four years. There was no reason to treat this mission any differently. But it was the first time she'd done battle with trained soldiers at her side. Forcing herself to pay attention, she listened intently as Doctor Walsh explained the mission objective and gave a brief description of the Polgara demon.
When Walsh finished, another white-coated scientist got up to explain the demon's defensive capabilities. My God. How do these guys get anything done? I thought Giles was all big with the research and talking.
As the talking finally died down, the Slayer decided the Initiative had a very different take on demon hunting. She raised her hand. "I have a question."
Looking faintly concerned, Doctor Walsh said, "Yes, Buffy?"
"Why exactly can't we damage this pokey thing's arms? I mean, not that I want to, it's just, in my experience, when fighting for your life, body parts get damaged. Better its bits than mine." Glancing at the Marines around her, she amended, "Ours."
The male scientist in front of the display answered, "We wish to study the physiology of every Sub Terrestrial and its natural defenses. It's part of the research we do here." He moved off, clearly finished with the briefing.
Not waiting to be acknowledged this time, the Slayer asked, "Why are they here?" When heads turned to look at her, she explained, "Are they looking for treasure, sacrifices, or are they just getting rampagey? I find it easier to predict their responses if I know."
The expert in Sub Terrestrials smirked. "They're not sentient, just destructive, I believe," he said condescendingly.
Professor Walsh walked in front of the seated group. "They do have keen eyesight, however. You might want to be suited up for this."
It took a moment for Buffy to realize the woman was referring to her clothes. "Oh, you mean the camo? I thought about it, but, I mean, it would just look all Private Benjamin." Chuckles came from several of the Marines. "Don't worry. I've patrolled in a halter many times."
The Professor clearly didn't know how to respond to that. She turned to Riley. "Agent Finn, deploy the troops."
The Slayer watched in confusion as her boyfriend fired off a lot of military jargon. Everyone else seemed to understand what he was saying. Finally, when all the orders had been given, Walsh added on final warning. "Remember, people, this is a 'zap and trap' operation. Capture, not a kill."
The men around Buffy stood and headed off to get geared up. The Slayer sat alone in the briefing area, staring at the still-displayed sketch of the Polgara demon. Maybe Will had a point. I really don't know much about the Initiative.
The door opened and Tara's eyes widened in surprise. A smile brightened her features. "Willow. What are you doing here?"
Shyly, the red head responded, "A funny thing happened with my prior social engagement." She glanced up and down the hallway. "It pretty much ended when a friend of mine went off to do something else with another group of people she hangs out with."
The older witch looked confused by the vague explanation.
"Tara?" The blonde looked up. "Can I come inside? I need your help with something, but I'm going to have to tell you a lot of really unbelievable things first." She smiled quirkily. "I'd rather not do this out here."