SUMMARY: Second part of the Some Years Later series: four
short pieces about Buffy's exes. Written in May, 2002 while I was
watching the end of Season Five, knowing a single spoiler from
Riley remembers every last thing in this house: the plain furniture, the patterned drapes, the indian rug next to the hearth. He knows, without looking, how many china cats sit on the mantelpiece behind him, and which ancestor is in which photograph in the hall. He knows where his mother keeps her collection of spoons (one from each of the forty-eight contiguous states) and he could find, in the dark, the door to the basement, its stores of canned goods and candles. Down the corridor to his left is his old room, still much as he left it even now. Aging science texts and books about basketball stars line the shelves, propped up by trophies. And framed on the wall and still dusted daily by his mother, is a certificate: Riley Finn, Valedictorian.
It all seems such a long time ago.
His father brought him an ant farm once, just a small one, when Riley was twelve. Riley had sat it on his desk and watched while the ants tunnelled and fed. After a week, he went out to the garage and built himself a much larger farm out of leftover glass. He took to keeping notes on their behaviour and read books on entomology. He thought about taking it up as a career.
His mother had been delighted by this studious and serious streak. "The little scholar!" she said. "Do you remember, when you were little, how you tried to read all the way through the Webster's?"
"Aadvark to zooplankton," he recalled. (It had been abridged.)
His mother had hugged him. "We're proud of you, Riley," she'd said.
In the dining room, where Riley sits, there is a cuckoo clock on the wall. His grandfather brought it back from Germany after the Second World War. It ticks steadily and noisily while his father carves the roast.
"You remember that Casteen girl?" his father asks him. "Married someone in your class."
"Marcia," Riley says. "On the athletics team. She married Tom after we graduated."
"Well, she's back in town. Came to ask about you last weekend."
"Almost divorced," his mother says. "But she has this darling little son..."
"We told her you were a doctor now," says his father, "and that you had a good job in the city."
"I'm not exactly a doctor. I have a doctorate, but I'm not a physician."
"She's working in the bank," his mother interjects, "but she doesn't seem to want to stay here. Would you like to see her while you're here?"
The clock ticks loudly while Riley thinks. His father places slices of meat on their plates and his mother portions out salad.
He remembers Marcia: her shiny round face, good teeth and brown hair. Did well enough in class and could outrace any girl he knew at the time.
"Why are she and Tom getting divorced?" he asks.
His father nods, as if this response has settled everything. "Boy's right. We've gotta know. It takes two to tango and Tom was a good boy."
His mother is a little deflated. "We just wondered, that's all."
The dinner is served and Riley bows his head while his father says grace.
He sent them a photo of Buffy once; they put it up on the piano, next to his model of the Columbia. When he came home, a year later, the photo was gone. He wonders sometimes if they still have it.
After dinner, Riley helps wash up, and then he goes to sit out in the yard. The sun hasn't quite set and the moon has just risen over the line of the shed. A light wind rustles the leaves of the trees and if he concentrates, he can make out the sound of the main street traffic. He breathes in the air of woodsmoke and dust.
It's all so familiar, every last thing, and yet he can't quite believe that it's real. Are there really still places with gingham kitchen drapes and basketball hoops hung from trees, where kids play kickball out in the street and old men sit in rocking chairs out on porches? His memories must be borrowed, they must belong to someone else, or maybe he saw something once on TV.
Sometimes he looks at his trophies and his certificates, or at the fresh piece of paper that makes him "Finn, Ph.D.", and he thinks to himself, see, I'm smart. He remembers (unless those memories are borrowed) feeling young and bright and self-assured, confident that he was able for anything life could throw at him. But if life has only ever thrown you bouquets, how can you tell? And now he knows---when the going gets tough, Riley Finn falls apart.
So these days he tries to take things easy. He's a big fish in a small pond, the bright young thing at a second-rate college, teaching psych to freshmen girls who think he's handsome. He dates a little and he thinks one day he'll settle down with another member of staff, or maybe one of the grad students. It's a small and unambitious life, not that his parents can tell, but it's not what Maggie would have wanted.
He thinks about Maggie sometimes, why she did what she did to him. He used to feel betrayed, but he's long since realised that her sins were the sins of a parent. She knew about the darkness and complexity of the world and had simply wanted him to survive it. So she had given him every last medical and technological advantage and the naive belief that his successes were still all his own. And her lies of omission had been to relieve him from the more difficult moral decisions. And so he had remained boy-Riley, untouched by regret or any real understanding.
Because while Riley is smart, in an ant-watching, book-learning, sharp-shooting sort of a way, he gets lost as soon as anyone tells a half-truth or says something that they don't quite mean. He's too honest for his own good---always has been, always will. So he couldn't tell when Maggie was lying or when Buffy was maybe telling the truth.
At one a.m. his alarm goes off softly and Riley gets out of bed. Ten minutes later he's dressed, armed, and stepping out of his window and into the yard. He wouldn't normally do this---the town's too small for most HSTs---but he picked something up on his tracer when he drove in, some kind of demon pheromone.
The town's silent at this time of night, its dutiful citizens sleeping. No-one stops Riley as he walks through the streets, his tracer in hand and his tazer rifle slung over his shoulder. (He has a surprising array of equipment left over from his Initiative days---the clean-up crews were less than thorough in the aftermath of the carnage.)
He finds them at last on the outskirts of town, a small group asleep in a ditch. He can't see what kind of demons they are and he doesn't much care. Buffy had tried to persuade him that there were demons you killed and there were demons you didn't, but it's pretty clear to him now what she meant: those that she killed and those that she slept with. Sure, Oz may have been human once, but even he admitted that the wolf was taking more and more of him over. Eventually there would be nothing real, just the shell of his personality, a kind of disguise for the monster underneath.
A single tazer shot stuns the demons; Riley finishes them off by
decapitation. As he watches, the three deliquesce without having once
made a sound. Then Riley heads home, back to his parents', for a night
of sound sleep until daybreak.