The snake hiss of leaves crushed underfoot caught the slayer’s attention. Her eyes narrowed and her muscles tensed as she surveyed the area. The blonde crouched down into her fighting stance, preparing to leap at whatever it was that was destroying the peaceful slumber of the cemetery. Probably another one of its former residents, she thought.
This time the sound came from the south, and it was definitely closer. The Slayer silently stalked toward a wall of high hedges that obscured her view like velvet curtain. Stake in hand, ready to strike, the blonde parted some of the close-knit branches, poking herself numerous times in the process. The tiny opening she produced was narrow enough for her to see that no one hid behind there; however, the Slayer still sensed someone’s presence, and it was nearby. She could feel it in the gentle breezes that drifted through the night air, rustling the grass and stirring about the autumn leaves.
Suddenly, an intense urge rushed through her body. Check your back! As the Slayer whirled around, she realized she hadn’t moved nearly fast enough. About halfway there, without warning, she was tackled, taking the hit dead-on and feeling the full force of the blow as she crashed to the ground, gasping for air. Her face screwed up in pain when she landed hard on her right ankle, bending it further than it wanted to be bent. She felt the furious fire inch up her leg, and she winced as it grew stronger, throbbing angrily.
Try as she might, the Slayer couldn’t get back up: partly because of her assailant’s crushing weight, and partly because she feared her ankle would give out if she attempted to stand up. Still, she wriggled fiercely under whatever had her, hoping that she might shake it off.
A throaty laugh was issued from the thing atop her as it tilted her head to the side, exposing all of her long neck. Out of the corners of her eyes, she caught a glimpse of the monstrous visage of a grinning vampire glaring hungrily at her pulsing carotid artery, bloodstained fangs extended and reaching eagerly for a taste of her blood.
With the sight of those faintly reddened teeth, the Slayer was unexpectedly struck with a strange feeling, a weird tingling in the back of her mind that was making her quake inside. Fear. Being the Slayer, the girl had hardly been subjected to fear; there was never any time for it in her profession. Sure, there’d been a few moments when she’d felt the pang, the inexplicable sensation that froze her muscles and made her blood run cold, but they passed as quickly as they came. Now, lying there under the fat vampire, unable to move her legs and without the aid of her trusty stake, the Slayer experienced this "fear" again, yet also for the first time.
With her head angled to the side, she could plainly see that her stake—her salvation—was just inches from her fingertips, lying on a bed of grass on a fresh grave. The blonde stretched and stretched until her arm could stretch no further, hoping to get a hold of the tip, yet knowing it was agonizingly out of reach and wasn’t getting any closer.
The vampire’s weight was pressing so hard on her chest that she could only succeed in breathing in short, erratic gasps, and she could almost hear her ribcage shattering into a million pieces under her skin.
Ever so slowly, it lowered its head to its captive’s neck, taking in the sweet smell of its victim through its filthy nostrils, savoring the aroma of fear about her. Just before its fangs could pierce her flesh, it heard something behind it: the muffled rustle of feet on grass. “Hey, Bloodboy!” The vampire jerked its head around only to be greeted by the sight of a foot to its jaw. It rolled off of the Slayer, caressing its dented jaw line and mumbling under its reeking breath.
“Buffy!” her savior shouted. “Get up!”
Her ears rang, so she didn’t recognize the voice; however, she discerned the message easily enough, and she followed the instructions anyway. As quickly as she could manage, Buffy grabbed her stake and clambered to her feet, less graceful than she expected, but getting up all the same. Bolts of electricity shot up her leg and the pain spread like wildfire, but she kept her balance long enough to dust the vamp and thank the person who saved her.
“Anytime, Buff.” Buff? Only her friends called her that. Her ears were still ringing and the voice wasn’t crystal clear, yet Buffy instantly knew it belonged to her Xander.
While Buffy walked over to him, her ankle bent under her own weight, and before she knew it, she stumbled and fell. Right before she could collide with the ground, Xander’s arms encircled her, helping her back to her feet. Why is Xander the one always rescuing me? Buffy asked.
“That was close. What happened?” inquired a very anxious Xander.
Buffy recounted the events that had transpired. “And that’s when you came into the picture. Did I forget to say thanks?”
“No, don’t worry. I think that was the first thing you said other than, and I quote, ‘Blood-sucking creep.’”
Buffy flashed him one of her award-winning smiles and said, “I think that’s more than enough slaying for tonight. I should probably get home and do something about this ankle.” When she finished, she realized Xander remained holding her up, arms wrapped protectively about her.
“For once, Buff, you realized it’s the right time to quit.” She nodded and, at the same time, sent out a silent order for him to let go of her, with which he complied, though he was a bit hesitant at first. When she tried to walk, she almost fell again, but of course, as expected, Xander caught her. “Walk much?” he joked. Buffy frowned and lightly elbowed him in the stomach. “Let me help you home.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m perfectly capable of getting there myself. After all, if I can handle demons and vampires, then I can surely get myself home.”
“Yeah, if you crawl the whole way there.”
“Just watch me!” she said, her stubborn streak shining brilliantly. Xander released Buffy once more, only to watch her trip and tumble to the ground.
“You know, at this rate, we’ll be home by tomorrow.” She scowled deeply at him, knowing perfectly well that he was right, and that in her condition there was no way she could get home by herself. He brought her back to her feet and casually slipped an arm around her waist, giving her support.
“Fine,” she whispered angrily, mostly at herself because of her weakness, but she hopped along with him anyway with her left arm about his neck, favoring her right leg.
During their walk to the Summers’ house, the two conversed freely about almost everything; everything that is except Angel and Cordelia. They somehow didn’t make it into Buffy and Xander’s talks about past adventures and the ones to come.
“So,” Buffy began, “I heard that Scott’s found a new girl, yeah?”
Xander cleared his throat before he replied. “Ah, yeah. I sorta heard that, uh, he and, uh-um, Faith went out on a few dates. But that’s just rumor, ya know, I mean, I don’t know for sure.” He knew how much Scott meant to Buffy. He was her proof that she was moving on with her life post-Angel.
“Faith, huh?” she mumbled thoughtfully. "Yeah, I can see that from her." Buffy stopped her pathetic hobbling, looked into Xander’s eyes and noted how dark they were. He stared right back, and they made a silent connection through which he conveyed the message: “I’m sorry.” Buffy managed to tear her eyes away from his to glance down the street at her house nestled just off of the curb.
Home. That was where she yearned to be right then. Home, with her injured leg on propped up on a pillow, on her bed, with a glass of O.J., and the TV on.
Somehow Xander sensed Buffy’s urgent longing for her house, so he started walking again, pulling his impaired companion lightly along. They continued in silence until they reached the front door of the house, then they turned to face each other once more, Buffy leaning against the wall for support. An air of tension surrounded the couple, and neither one was exactly sure of what to say to the other, so they stood there, each quietly observing the other.
“No more climbing through any windows for the rest of the week, I guess,” Buffy offered.
“Nope, guess not.”
They stood silent for a few moments longer and then Buffy asked, “Wanna come in for a bit? I’m sure my mom won’t mind any. I don’t think she’s home.”
Xander smiled brilliantly, and Buffy couldn’t help but notice how bright his eyes were then. He looked about nervously and started massaging his hands. “Sorry, Buff, but I’m afraid I’ll have to take a rain check. It’s awfully late, and you need time to take care of that ankle. Besides, we’ve got school tomorrow. And that big Trig test! Heh. I guess I forgot that too... Remember school, the place where you go, well, are supposed to go, every weekday?”
She laughed briefly. “Since when have you ever cared about school and Trig tests, Mr. Harris?”
“Well, since never. But my mom does, and I know for a fact that yours does too, especially this year.”
Buffy shrugged off his comments and instead smiled at him. She looked into his eyes again, and as she did, Xander studied her flawless face. Boy, she was beautiful. Even after staking vampires and rolling around in a cemetery, the land of the dead, she still smelled and looked gorgeous. Buffy Summers was the only girl he knew that could do that. Not even Cordy could hold a candle to her in that department.
Xander became immersed in thoughts. He used to believe that Buffy’s leaving Sunnydale had been both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it had allowed Xander to give up his unattainable dream of being with Buffy to be with his actual girlfriend, Cordelia, which delighted her to no end. Yet, it was also a curse because he loved her, and everyday he’d wake up wishing she were in town so he could at least see her wonderful face and inhale her wonderful scent. And then, when she had returned, he was shocked, angry that she left in the first place, and totally and completely glad, of course. But for some reason he hadn’t felt the old attraction, that certain yearning, which Xander swore had taken years off of his life, when he was near enough to Buffy to feel the heat radiating off of her body. He had thought maybe, just maybe, he had finally fallen out of love with her and moved on with his life.
But alas, as he gazed into her strikingly expressive eyes, he knew that wasn’t the case. He was still as much in love with Buffy Anne Summers as he was before she’d left town, possibly even more so.
“Come on, Xander, you can’t fool me. What’s the real reason you won’t come inside?”
Well, he certainly couldn’t fool her, though he had desperately wished he could. Xander didn’t want to tell her his actual reason for not joining her. What would she say if he told her that he really did want to come in, but didn’t dare for fear he would fall totally, head over heels in love with her all over again if he spent anymore time next to her? She’d probably laugh in my face, he thought grimly.
“Really, Buffster, that’s the real reason. You need to heal that ankle, and you really don’t want me hangin’ around, drivin’ you nuts. Admit it.”
She let out a heavy sigh, then replied, “Fine, fine. You don’t have to tell me the truth if you don’t want to, but if I guess it right, will you tell me so?”
He decided that she might make up a sufficient excuse for him to avoid staying with her. He’d just wait for one that sounded good and say, “That’s it!” and he’d be out of there in no time, problem solved.
“You always have to know everything, don’t you? All right, go ahead.”
“Okay, is it because you’re planning a really awesome surprise party for me?” Xander shook his head no. Buffy pondered another moment to then ask, “You’ve won the lottery, and you’re in a big hurry to get your first check?” Another no. “You’re off to save the world from the evilest beast there is?”
Now he had an idea. He paused for dramatics. “Close.”
“Hey, I thought that sorta thing was my job!” Xander smirked at her. “Oh well, at least I’m close. Is this beast in Sunnydale?” He nodded yes. “Great! Now I’m really getting somewhere. Is this thing male?” A no. “Female then, huh?” A yes. Suddenly her voice took on a softer, sadder tone. “Are you going over to Cordelia’s?”
“You guessed it. You’re better at this than I thought.”
I wish I weren’t, Buffy mused unhappily.
“So, now that you know, you don’t mind if I hit the trail, so to speak?”
“No,” she replied. “Don’t keep the girl—”
“—the beast waiting any longer than she already has.” Buffy tried to hide the air of disappointment in her voice, barely hiding it from herself. She began to wonder if he would have ever turned down this offer before she’d run away. Maybe she’d read all the signals wrong; maybe he didn’t have feelings for her after all.
“Perhaps some other time then?” he offered.
“Sure, Xander, sure.” He opened the front door for her and helped the Slayer up the flight of stairs to her bed. Once in her room, Xander removed his arm from around her waist, and in turn, she removed hers from around his shoulder.
“Need anything before I go: O.J., the remote, perhaps a pillow under that foot?”
“Nope,” she stated with a warm smile (he was so sweet, well, sometimes), “my mom can take care of it. You’re free to go. I release you from bondage. I know how anxious you are to see Cordy.”
“Yeah, anxious like I am for that Trig test tomorrow.”
Despite the fact that she laughed at his joke about his girlfriend, Buffy appeared a little putout by everything. So before he left, Xander gave her a brief but heartfelt hug and promised he’d see her tomorrow “bright and early.”
“Take good care of yourself.”
“Will do, Captain Xander.”
He gave her a comforting smile as he said his final goodbye and closed her bedroom door behind him, the soft click of the jamb filling the room.
Buffy laid there for a moment, wondering how he’d known exactly what she wanted: her bed, orange juice, TV and a fluffy pillow under her sprained ankle. She stared out the window thinking, Boy, I hope Cordelia knows how lucky she is. Almost unconsciously, Buffy touched her left side, which was still warm from pressing up against Xander.