Buffy eyed the balding man standing over her infirmary bed with curious eyes, taking in the leather gear, the confident posture, and the way he eyed her back as though she were the most dangerous thing in the room despite the fact that she was weaker than a kitten and drugged to the gills with pain meds. Definitely military trained, even if he didn't dress like it. The blonde Colonel poised behind his right shoulder had called the old guy "Dad", and they did share a last name, but he was pinging on Buffy's Slayer radar as something not of this Earth.
Maybe literally, and not just in a dimensional way. She had started dreaming about weird stone circles filled with watery blue light weeks ago, long before her encounter with the demon whose incurable infectious venom was slowly killing her, even before Riley's call about an experimental treatment developed by a secret military program buried under Cheyenne Mountain. If it hadn't been for the dreams she might have stayed in Italy and patiently awaited her third death rather than put herself in the hands of another potential Initiative, but with the prospect of an alien-based apocalypse on the radar, she'd chosen duty over eternity. Besides, this time she had an army of slayers and the most powerful White Witch in centuries to come to her rescue if there was another Professor Walsh at the controls.
"So," she said, clearing her throat, bored with waiting for the doctor to show up and officially introduce them. "Riley said you're some kind of Taco?"
The guy blinked at Buffy, then chuckled. Next to him, the blonde put a hand over her mouth, blue eyes twinkling merrily at the comment.
"It's Tok'ra," he answered, "not taco, though I can see why you might get confused. The name means 'against Ra' and refers to a group of humans with alien symbiotes who fight against our common enemy, the Goa'uld."
Symbiotes, right. Between the Gold things and the tinkertoy bugs, the brief introductory speech Riley had given her had been pretty hair-raising. Buffy was used to hair-raising, though, after seven years in Sunnydale and nearly a year in Rome. "Kind of like vampires with souls," she said, nodding in understanding. "Still possessed, but with extra added conscience."
"I don't know if I'd call it possessed..." the Tok'ra said, lips curved downward in distaste.
"...Except in the literal sense of the word," Colonel Carter interrupted, still looking amused. "Although I would hesitate to draw parallels from fantasy literature in general. The Tok'ra symbiotes and their hosts do share a body, but their personalities remain distinct. The hosts generally gain extended lifespans, improved healing capabilities, greater strength, and the ability to sense other symbiotes in addition to being able to access the symbiote's greater knowledge, but they don't live forever, nor are they sensitive to sunlight, or garlic, or holy items, or anything else of similar nature."
"Thor's Hammer aside," Jacob muttered, glancing sideways at his daughter.
Buffy didn't think she was supposed to have overheard his comment, any more than she was apparently supposed to have mentioned the supernatural, so she didn't ask, nor attempt to correct the 'fantasy literature' remark. She was going to have to kick Riley's ass for that when she recovered; she'd assumed these guys knew all about his demon-fighting squad and their mutual past experience in Sunnydale, but it looked like the details of her file had been restricted. Why did they think she was here, anyway? Cancer? How would that help her get a cure?
"And the passenger gets opposable thumbs and a voice out of the deal," she said aloud, continuing where Colonel Carter had left off.
The Tok'ra lowered his head, then looked up again. His eyes glowed suddenly, reminding Buffy of the amber color of a vampire's eyes when in game face, and her muscles tensed in reaction. "That is essentially correct," he said, in a weird echoing voice. "I am Selmac. Jacob and I have been blended for nearly six of your Earth years."
"Wow," she said. "Uh, nice to meet you. So. I hope I'm not being rude, but can you tell me why I'm here? What can the Togas do for me that a normal hospital couldn't?"
Selmac lowered his head, then looked up again, and she could almost see the difference even before he spoke; Jacob was back in control. "There are two main options. We have a healing device that is capable of curing many ailments and physical injuries that affect humans. And if that doesn't work-- and only if you are willing-- we do have a Tok'ra currently in need of a new host. Selmac cured me of terminal cancer; there's very little a symbiote can't fix."
Buffy swallowed hard at that idea, old nightmares of being turned into a vampire hovering in the back of her mind. But there were the dreams... She'd forgotten until now, but she'd been wearing leather gear very like Jacob's in the one where she'd walked through the water-portal. Stupid Powers; had they sent that demon to her on purpose to arrange just that outcome? Or were they just taking advantage of an opportunity to move their chess piece to a new playing board? So much for retiring from Slaying.
"I'd have to think about that second one," she said warily, wishing Giles had been allowed to come along. She could use his advice right about now.
"Of course," Jacob said, with a reassuring smile. "We wouldn't even ask you to seriously consider it without taking you to meet Carmentis; if you don't get along with her, or you decide you don't want to be a host, we have a few days to find someone else who would be willing. But that may not even be necessary; we'll try the healing device as soon as Dr. Lam is ready."
Of course, the device turned out not to work. "It's a very aggressive organism; your body reacts to it as though it were a poison, but it spreads like a virus. I've never seen anything like it," the doctor explained. "The technology in the healing device doesn't seem able to affect it. On the bright side, however, it looks like it in turn will have very little effect on a symbiote; whatever this is, it's only deadly to humans. It would take some time to filter it out of your body completely, but I think the blending would ultimately be a success."
"And if I don't do this blending thing, I'll die," Buffy said bluntly, just to make things clear. She'd dreamed of portals and alien battles again the night before, and Riley hadn't relayed any last-minute messages from Giles about a rediscovered cure; she still wasn't at all sure that becoming a Tok'ra was the way to go, but it was pretty clear that the next apocalypse was going to arrive on schedule, with or without her.
"I'm afraid so," Dr. Lam said, apologetically. "There's nothing more we can do for you here."
Buffy drew in as deep a breath as she could manage, then let it out in a sigh. "Okay. Then take me to her."
Jacob and his daughter were waiting for them in a big open room even further underground than the infirmary. Colonel Carter's teammates were there too, an enormous black guy with a weird color name and a gold tattoo on his forehead, and a blue-eyed Adonis introduced as Dr. Jackson. An equally attractive general with warm brown eyes and silver hair saw them off, wishing her 'good luck' with an apprehensive expression.
"Don't mind him," Dr. Jackson leaned over her rolling bed, giving her a reassuring smile as they moved toward a ramp that seemed to lead into nowhere. "He's had a bad experience with a Tok'ra symbiote in the past. But I assure you, I've heard nothing but positive things about Carmentis. She's actually a seer, one of the reasons the Tok'ra are so worried about saving her; she went down in Roman history as goddess of prophecy, and a protector of women in childbirth. She was also closely associated with Egeria, who we now know was the mother of all Tok'ra..."
Prophecy? Buffy thought, tuning out the rest of his Giles-babble, and felt vaguely nauseous.
Her bed turned, and she saw now what they were walking toward: the round portal of her dreams, filled with a watery blue light. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Ready or not...
They left her on a hard bed-like thing in a strange room that looked like it was made out of crystals. It was the first thing she'd seen with her own eyes that looked truly alien, and the gravity of the situation struck her anew. Was this the right thing to do? Did she have the guts to go through with it? What would she tell her friends? Would they even let her go back?
Of course they would, she chided herself, clinging on to the memory of her dream. She hadn't walked through the ramp under her own power, much less wearing those weird brown leather clothes; the Teal-guy had lifted her from her gurney and carried her through, wearing a set of scrubs from the infirmary. She'd felt like a child again, cradled in those big, strong arms; she felt like one still, propped on her side next to a white-haired woman who looked a little like her long-dead Grandma Summers.
The woman's eyes opened, and eyes the same shade of green as her own peered back at Buffy from a foot away.
"We've been waiting a long time for you, Slayer," she whispered, with a soft smile on her face. She lifted a wrinkled, age-spotted hand and laid it on Buffy's cheek. "You thought you knew what you were, what was to come..."
"I've heard this all before," Buffy flinched back, feeling alarmed and slightly dizzy. "I know the rest: 'I haven't even begun.'"
"Oh, but you have," the woman replied with a beatific smile. "You're here at last; the Daughters of Sineya spread across the stars await your guidance."
Oh God, Buffy thought. They'd never considered whether Willow's spell had awakened Slayers on other planets. Girls who might never have heard of demons or Watchers, girls that might have lived their entire lives in slavery if what Riley had told her was true.
Suddenly, her decision wasn't all that hard to make.